“NUX” AND “BRYONIA.”

On the seventh day of May, 1897, the “Flipper” weighed anchor and sailed
before a light breeze through the Golden Gate and away on her voyage
toward Alaska and its gold fields. Stored within her hold was a vast
quantity of provisions of the sort that could be kept indefinitely
without danger of spoiling. Flour, hams, bacon, sugar and coffee were
represented; but canned meats and vegetables, tobacco and cheap cigars
comprised by far the greater part of the cargo. Uncle Naboth had been
seriously advised to carry a good supply of liquors, but refused
positively to traffic in such merchandise.

Indeed, my uncle rose many degrees in my respect after I had watched for
a time his preparations for our voyage. Simple, rough and uneducated he
might be, but a shrewder man at a bargain I have never met in all my
experience. And his reputation for honesty was so well established that
his credit was practically unlimited among the wholesale grocers and
notion jobbers of San Francisco. Everyone seemed ready and anxious to
assist him, and the amount of consideration he met with on every hand
was really wonderful.

“We’ve bought the right stuff, Sam,” he said to me, as we stood on the
deck and watched the shore gradually recede, “and now we’ve got to sell
it right. That’s the secret of good tradin’.”

I was glad enough to find myself at sea, where I could rest from my
labors of the past two weeks. I had been upon the docks night and day,
it seemed, checking off packages of goods as fast as they were loaded on
the lighters, and being unaccustomed to work I tired very easily. But my
books were all accurate and “ship-shape,” and I had found opportunity to
fit up my little state-room with many comforts. In this I had been aided
by Uncle Naboth, who was exceedingly liberal in allowing me money for
whatever I required. At one time I said I would like to buy a few books,
and the next day, to my surprise, he sent to my room a box containing
the complete works of Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, with a
miscellaneous collection of volumes by standard authors.

“I don’t know much about books myself, Sam,” he said; “so I got a feller
that _does_ know to pick ’em out for me, an’ I guess you’ll find ’em the
right sort.”

I did not tell him that I would have preferred to make my own selection,
and afterward I frankly admitted to myself that the collection was an
admirable one.

By this time I had come to know all the officers and crew, and found
them a pretty good lot, taken altogether. The principle “characters”
aboard were the dismal Captain Gay, who was really as contented a man as
I ever knew, Acker, the ship’s doctor, and two queer black men called by
everybody Nux and Bryonia. Acker was a big, burly Englishman, who,
besides being doctor, served as mate. He was jolly and good natured as
the day was long, and had a few good stories which he told over and over
again, invariably laughing at them more heartily than his auditors did.
Singularly enough, Captain Gay and “Doc” Acker were close friends and
cronies, and lived together in perfect harmony.

The black men interested me greatly from the moment I first saw them.
Bryonia, or “Bry,” as he was more frequently called, was the cook, and
gave perfect satisfaction in that capacity. “Nux” was man-of-all-work,
serving the cabin mess, assisting the cook, and acting as “able seaman”
whenever required. He proved competent in nearly all ways, and was a
prime favorite with officers and men.

They were natives of some small island of the Sulu archipelago, and
their history was a strange one. In answer to my question as to why the
blacks were so queerly named, Uncle Naboth related the following:

“It were six years ago, or thereabout, as we were homeward bound from
our third Australy trip, that we sighted a native canoe in the
neighborhood of the Caroline Islands. It was early in the mornin’, and
at first the lookout thought the canoe was empty; but it happened to lay
in our course, and as we overtook it we saw two niggers lyin’ bound in
the bottom of the boat. So we lay to, an’ picked ’em up, an’ when they
was histed aboard they were considerable more dead ner alive. Bill Acker
was our mate then, as he is now, an’ in his early days he studied to be
a hoss doctor. So he always carries a box of medicines with him, to fix
up the men in case they gets the jaundice or the colic. Mostly they’s
pills, an’ sugar coated, for Doc hates to tackle drugs as is very
dangerous. An’ on account of a good deal of sickness among the crew that
trip, an’ consequently a good deal of experimentin’ by Doc on the
medicine chest, the pills an’ such like was nearly used up, though no
one seemed much the worse for it.

“Well, after we’d cut the niggers’ bonds, an’ rubbed ’em good to restore
the circulation, we come near decidin’ they was dead an’ heavin’ of ’em
overboard agin. But Doc wouldn’t give up. He brought out the medicine
box, an’ found that all the stuff he had left was two bottles of pills,
one of ’em Nux Vomica, an’ the other Bryonia. I was workin’ over one of
the niggers, an’ Doc he hands me one o’ the bottles an says: ‘Nux.’ So I
emptied the bottle into the dead man’s mouth, an’ by Jinks, Sam, he come
around all right, and is alive an’ kickin’ today. Cap’n Gay dosed the
other one with the Bryonia, an’ it fetched him in no time. I won’t swear
it were the pills, you know; but the fact is the niggers lived.

“Afterwards we found the critters couldn’t speak a word of English, ner
tell us even what their names were. So we called one Nux, and the other
Bryonia, accordin’ to the medicine that had saved their lives, an’
they’ve answered to those names ever since.”

The blacks were gentle and good natured, and being grateful for their
rescue they had refused to leave the ship at the end of the voyage, and
were now permanent fixtures of the “Flipper.”

“They are not slaves, are they?” I asked, when I had listened to this
story.

“Mercy, no!” exclaimed Uncle Naboth. “They’re as free as any of us, an’
draw their wages reg’lar. Also they’re as faithful as the day is long,
an’ never get drunk or mutinous. So it were a lucky day when we picked
’em up.”

Bryonia stood fully six feet in height, and was muscular and wonderfully
strong. He had a fine face, too, and large and intelligent eyes. Nux was
much shorter, and inclined to be fat. But he was not a bit lazy, for all
that, and accomplished an immense amount of work in so cheerful a manner
that never a complaint was laid at his door. Not a sailor could climb
aloft with more agility or a surer foot, and both Nux and Bryonia were
absolutely fearless in the face of danger.

Although these men were black they were not negroes, but belonged to a
branch of the Malay race. Their hair was straight, their noses well
formed and their eyes very expressive and intelligent. The English they
had picked up from the crew, however, was spoken with an accent not
unlike that peculiar to the African negroes, but with a softer and more
sibilant tone.

Before I had been on the ship a week both Nux and Bry were my faithful
friends and devoted followers, and in the days that were to come their
friendship and faithfulness stood me in good stead.

A very interesting person to me was big Bill Acker, the mate, called by
courtesy “Doc.” He seemed far above his mates in the matter of
intelligence, and was evidently a well bred man in his youth. A shelf
above his bunk bore a well-thumbed row of volumes on the world’s great
religions, together with a Talmud, a Koran, a Bible, the works of
Confucius and Max Müller’s translation of the Vedas. One seemed to have
been as thoroughly read as the others, yet never have I heard Doc Acker
say one word, good or bad, about religion. Whatever the result of his
studies might be, he kept his opinions strictly to himself.

A stiff breeze sprang up during the first night, and the second day at
sea found me miserably ill, and regretting that I had ever trusted
myself to the mercies of cruel old ocean. Indeed, I lay in a most
pitiable plight until the big Englishman came to me with doses of
medicines from his chest. He might have been merely “a hoss doctor,” as
Uncle Naboth had said; but certain it is that his remedies helped me,
and within twenty-four hours I was again able to walk the deck in
comfort.

Perhaps I had inherited some of my father’s fondness for salt water, for
my new life soon became vastly interesting to me, and it was not long
before I felt entirely at home on the dingy old “Flipper.”

One morning, after standing by the bulwarks for a time watching the
water slip by, I climbed upon the rail and sat with my heels dangling
over the side. Suddenly I felt a strong hand grasp my shoulder and draw
me to the deck, and I turned around indignantly to find black Nux beside
me.

“Bad place to sit, Mars Sam,” he said, coolly; “might tum’le ov’bode.”

Before I could reply, Uncle Naboth, who had witnessed the incident,
strolled up to us and said:

“Nux is right, my lad. You never find a sailor sitting on the rail; they
know too well how onreliable the motion of a ship is. If anybody drops
overboard the chances o’ bein’ picked up alive is mighty slim, I tell
you. Only fools put ’emselves into unnecessary danger, Sam. Take it on
them orful railroad cars, for instance. Old travellers always wait ’till
the train stops afore they gets on or off the cars. Them as don’t know
the danger is the ones that gets hurt. Same way handlin’ a gun. An old
hunter once told me he never p’inted a gun at anything he didn’t want to
kill; but there’s a lot o’ folks killed ev’ry year that don’t know the
blamed thing is loaded. It ain’t cowardly to be keerful, lad; but only
fools an’ ignorant people is reckless enough to get careless.”

I am glad to say I took this lecture with good humor, admitting frankly
that Uncle Naboth was right. At least once in the future a recollection
of this caution saved me from hopeless disaster.

On the sixth day the breeze died away and the ship lay still. There was
not a breath of air, and the heat was so intense that the interior of
the ship was like a furnace. At night we slept upon the deck, and by day
we lay gasping beneath the shade of the tarpaulins. Bryonia let the
galley fire die out and served us cold lunches, but our appetites were
small.

There being no occasion to work, the crew gathered in little bunches and
told a series of never-ending yarns that were very interesting to me,
because most of them were of hair-breadth adventures and escapes that
were positively wonderful—if one tried to believe them. One of the best
of these story-tellers was Ned Britton, who had been appointed our
boatswain and was already popular with his mates. As his yarns were all
of the Atlantic, and most of the “Flipper’s” crew had sailed only on the
Pacific, Britton opened to them a new field of adventures, which met
with universal approval.

Nux and Bry, who bore the heat better than their white brethren, added
to the general amusement by giving exhibitions of the Moro war dances,
ending with desperate encounters, with sticks to represent spears, that
were sure to arouse the entire crew to enthusiasm. They sometimes sang
their native war songs, also—a series of monotonous, guttural chants.
And then Dan Donnegan, a little, red-whiskered Irishman, would wind up
with “Bryan O’Lynne” or some other comic ditty that set the forecastle
roaring with laughter.

During this period of enforced idleness the dismal Captain Gay walked
the deck with solemn patience and watched for signs of a breeze. Bill
Acker, the mate, read his religious library all through—probably for the
hundredth time. Uncle Nabe taught me cribbage, and we played for hours
at a time, although I usually came out second best at the game. Also I
learned the ropes of the ship and received many lessons in navigation
from my friends the sailors, not one of whom knew anything about that
abstruse problem.

“Thay ain’t a man o’ the lot as could take the ship back to ’Frisco, in
case of emergency,” said my uncle; and I believe he was right. Common
sailors are singularly ignorant of navigation, although they have a way
of deceiving themselves into thinking they know all about it.

After being becalmed six days, the intense heat was at last relieved by
a thin breeze, which sprung up during the night. The sails were at once
trimmed, and within an hour the “Flipper” was skipping the little waves
to the satisfaction of all on board.

But the wind steadily increased, and by morning all hands were called to
shorten sail. By noon we encountered a stiff gale, which blew from the
east, and soon lashed the waves into a mad frenzy.

As the storm gradually increased Captain Gay began to look anxious.
There was a brief lull toward evening, during which a great hail-storm
descended upon us, the icy bullets pelting the sailors unmercifully and
driving all to shelter. Then the wind redoubled its fury, and the
Captain put the ship before it, allowing the gale to bear us
considerably out of our course.

Uncle Naboth growled considerably at this necessity, but he did not
interfere in the least with Captain Gay’s management of the ship. Safety
was more important to us than time, and Gay was not a man to take
unnecessary chances.

The three wild days that followed have always seemed to me since like a
horrible dream. I had no idea a ship could be so tossed and pounded and
battered about, and still live. It was a mere chip on the great, angry
ocean, and the water washed our decks almost continually. After one of
these deluges, when every man strove to save himself by clinging to the
life lines, two of our best sailors were missed, and we never saw them
again. Uncle Nabe began to whistle, and every time he saw me he gave one
of his humorous winks or fell to chuckling in his silent way; but my
white face could not have been much encouragement to gaiety, and I
believe he was not over merry himself, but merely trying to cheer me up.

But, although the danger was so imminent, not a man flinched or gave way
to fear, and Nux and Bryonia performed their duties as calmly as if the
sea were smooth. The vessel was staunch enough, so far; but it pitched
and tossed so violently that even burly Doc Acker was obliged to crawl
into the cabin on his hands and knees to get his meals.

We fled before the wind until the third night, when the rudder chain
broke and the helmsman was thrown, crushed and bleeding, against the lee
bulwarks. The “Flipper,” released from all control, swung quickly
around, and the big mainmast snapped like a pipe-stem and came tumbling
with its cordage to the decks, where our brave sailors rushed upon it
and cut it clear. I thought the ship would never right again, after the
careening given it by the fallen mast; but, somehow, it did, and morning
found us still afloat, although badly crippled and at the mercy of the
waves.

As if satisfied with the havoc it had wrought, the gale now abated; but
the waves ran high for another forty-eight hours, and our crew could do
nothing but cling to the remaining rigging and await calmer weather.

Fortunately our ballast and cargo held in place through all, and the
hull showed no sign of a leak. When the sea grew calmer we floated
upright upon the water and it was found our straits were not nearly so
desperate as we had feared.

Yet our condition was serious enough to make me wonder what was to
become of us. The rudder had been entirely washed away; the mainmast was
gone; the mizzenmast had broken at the head and the foresail royals were
in splinters. All the deck was cumbered with rigging; the starboard
bulwarks had been stove in by the fallen mast, and our crew was lessened
by three able seamen.

But Captain Gay, no less dismal than before, you may be sure, promptly
began to issue orders, and the men fell to with a will to repair the
damage as best they might. First they rigged up a temporary rudder and
swung it astern. It was a poor makeshift, however, and only with good
weather could we hope it would steer us to the nearest port.

While the men cleared the decks and rigged up a jury mast under the
supervision of the mate, Captain Gay took our bearings and ascertained
that we had not departed so greatly from our course as we had feared.
Yet it was impossible to make the mouth of the Yukon in our present
condition, or even to reach a shelter in Bering Sea. It was found,
however, that the Alaska peninsula was not far away, so we decided to
draw as near to that as possible, in the hope of meeting a passing
vessel or finding a temporary refuge on some one of the numerous islands
that lie in this part of the North Pacific.

For four days we labored along, in our crippled condition, without
sighting land; but then our fortunes changed. During the night a good
breeze from the southwest swept us merrily along, and when daylight came
we found ourselves close to a small, wooded island. It lay in the form
of a horse-shoe, with a broad, protected bay in the center, and Captain
Gay, anxious to examine his ship more closely, decided at once to enter
the harbor and cast anchor.

This was by no means an easy task, for long lines of reefs extended from
each point of the shore, almost enclosing the bay with jagged rocks. But
the sea was calm and the position of the reefs clearly marked; so that
by skillful maneuvering the “Flipper” passed between them in safety, and
to the relief and satisfaction of all on board we dropped our anchor in
the clear waters of the bay.

Continue Reading

I SHIP ABOARD THE “FLIPPER.”

When the two-seated spring wagon drew up before the tavern door quite a
crowd of idle villagers assembled to see us off, and among them I
noticed my father’s old sailor, Ned Britton. Uncle Naboth climbed aboard
at once, but I stayed to shake the hands held out to me and to thank the
Batteraft people for their hearty wishes for my future prosperity. I
think they were sorry to see me go, and I know I felt a sudden pang of
regret at parting from the place where I had lived so long and the
simple villagers who had been my friends.

When at last I mounted to the rear seat of the wagon and sat beside my
uncle, I was astonished to find Ned Britton established beside the
driver.

“Are you going with us?” I asked.

The sailor nodded.

“It’s like this,” remarked Mr. Perkins, as we rolled away from the
tavern, “this man belonged to my old partner, Cap’n Steele, an’ stuck to
his ship ’til she went down. Also he’s put himself out to come here an’
tell us the news, and it ain’t every sailor as’ll take the trouble to do
such a job. Therefore, Ned Britton bein’ at present without a ship, I’ve
asked him to take a berth aboard the ‘Flipper.’”

“That was kind of you, Uncle,” I said, pleased at this evidence of my
relative’s kindly nature.

“An honest sailor ain’t to be sneezed at,” continued Uncle Naboth, with
one of his quaint winks. “If Ned Britton were faithful to the ‘Saracen’
he’ll be faithful to the ‘Flipper.’ An’ that’s the sort o’ man we want.”

Britton doubtless overheard every word of this eulogy, but he gazed
stolidly ahead and paid no attention to my uncle’s words of praise.

We reached the railway station in ample time for the train, and soon
were whirling away on our long journey into the golden West.

No incident worthy of note occurred on our way across the continent,
although I might record a bit of diplomacy on the part of Uncle Naboth
that illustrates the peculiar shrewdness I have always found coupled
with his native simplicity.

Just before our train drew into Chicago, where we were to change cars
and spend the best part of a day, my uncle slipped into my hand a long,
fat pocket-book, saying:

“Hide that in your pocket, Sam, and button it up tight.”

“What’s your idea, Uncle Nabe?” I asked.

“Why, we’re comin’ to the wickedest city in all the world, accordin’ to
the preachers; an’ if it ain’t that, it’s bad enough, in all conscience.
There’s robbers an’ hold-up men by the thousands, an’ if one of ’em got
hold of me I’d be busted in half a second. But none of ’em would think
of holdin’ up a boy like you; so the money’s safe in your pocket, if you
don’t go an’ lose it.”

“I’ll try not to do that, sir,” I returned; but all during the day the
possession of the big pocket-book made me nervous and uneasy. I
constantly felt of my breast to see that the money was still safe, and
it is a wonder my actions did not betray to some sly thief the fact that
I was concealing the combined wealth of our little party.

No attempt was made to rob us, however, either at Chicago or during the
remainder of the journey to the Pacific coast, and we arrived at our
destination safely and in good spirits.

Uncle Naboth seemed especially pleased to reach San Francisco again.

“This car travellin’,” he said, “is good enough for landsmen that don’t
know of anything better; but I’d rather spend a month at sea than a
night in one of them stuffy, dangerous cars, that are likely to run
off’n the track any minute.”

Ned Britton and I accompanied Mr. Perkins to a modest but respectable
lodging-house near the bay, where we secured rooms and partook of a
hearty breakfast. Then we took a long walk, and I got my first sight of
the famous “Golden Gate.” I was surprised at the great quantity of
shipping in the bay, and as I looked over the hundreds of craft at
anchor I wondered curiously which was the “Flipper,” of which I was part
owner—the gallant ship whose praises Uncle Naboth had sung so
persistently ever since we left Batteraft.

After luncheon we hired a small boat, and Ned Britton undertook to row
us aboard the “Flipper,” which had been hidden from our view by a point
of land. I own that after my uncle’s glowing descriptions of her I
expected to see a most beautiful schooner, with lines even nobler than
those of the grand old “Saracen,” which had been my father’s pride for
so many years. So my disappointment may be imagined when we drew up to a
grimy looking vessel of some six hundred tons, with discolored sails,
weather-worn rigging and a glaring need of fresh paint.

Ned Britton, however, rested on his oars, studied the ship carefully,
and then slowly nodded his head in approval.

“Well, what d’ye think o’ her?” asked Uncle Naboth, relapsing into one
of his silent chuckles at the expression of my face.

“She looks rather dirty, sir,” I answered, honestly.

“The ‘Flipper’ ain’t quite as fresh as a lily in bloom, that’s a fact,”
returned my uncle, in no ways discomfited by my remark. “She wasn’t no
deebutantee when I bought her, an’ her clothes has got old, and darned
and patched, bein’ as we haven’t been near to a Paris dressmaker. But
I’ve sailed in her these ten years past, Sam, an’ we’re both as sound as
a dollar.”

“She ought to be fast, sir,” remarked Britton, critically.

Mr. Perkins laughed—not aloud, but in his silent, distinctly humorous
way.

“She _is_ fast, my lad, w’ich is a virtue in a ship if it ain’t in a
woman. And in some other ways, besides, the ‘Flipper’ ain’t to be
sneezed at. As for her age, she’s too shy to tell it, but I guess it
entitles her to full respect.”

We now drew alongside, and climbed upon the deck, where my uncle was
greeted by a tall, lank man who appeared to my curious eyes to be a good
example of a living skeleton. His clothes covered his bones like bags,
and so thin and drawn was his face that his expression was one of
constant pain.

“Morn’n’, Cap’n,” said Uncle Naboth, although it was afternoon.

“Morn’n’, Mr. Perkins,” returned the other, in a sad voice. “Glad to see
you back.”

“Here’s my nevvy, Sam Steele, whose father were part owner but got lost
in a storm awhile ago.”

“Glad to see you, sir,” said the Captain, giving my hand a melancholy
shake.

“An’ here’s Ned Britton, who once sailed with Cap’n Steele,” continued
my uncle. “He’ll sign with us, Cap’n Gay, and I guess you’ll find him A
No. 1.”

“Glad to see you, Britton,” repeated the Captain, in his dismal voice.
If the lanky Captain was as glad to see us all as his words indicated,
his expression fully contradicted the fact.

Britton saluted and walked aft, where I noticed several sailors
squatting upon the deck in careless attitudes. To my glance these seemed
as solemn and joyless as their Captain; but I acknowledge that on this
first visit everything about the ship was a disappointment to me,
perhaps because I had had little experience with trading vessels and my
mind was stored with recollections of the trim “Saracen.”

Below, however, was a comfortable cabin, well fitted up, and Uncle
Naboth showed me a berth next to his own private room which was to be my
future home. The place was little more than a closet, but I decided it
would do very well.

“I thought _you_ were the captain of the ‘Flipper,’ Uncle Naboth,” said
I, when we were alone.

“No; I’m jest super-cargo,” he replied, with his usual wink. “You see, I
wasn’t eddicated as a sailor, Sam, an’ never cared to learn the trade.
Cap’n Gay is one o’ the best seamen that ever laid a course, so I hire
him to take the ship wherever I want to go. As fer the cargo, that’s my
’special look-out, an’ it keeps me busy enough, I can tell you. I’m a
nat’ral born trader, and except fer that blamed Japan trip, I ain’t much
ashamed of my record.”

“Will you go to Australia again?” I asked.

“Not jest now, Sam. My next venture’s goin’ to be a bit irregular—what
you might call speculative, an’ extry-hazardous. But we’ll talk that
over tonight, after supper.”

After making a cursory examination of the ship Uncle Naboth received the
Captain’s report of what had transpired in his absence, and then we
rowed back to town again.

We strolled through the city streets for an hour, had supper, and then
my uncle took me to his room, carefully closed and locked the door, and
announced that he was ready to “talk business.”

“Bein’ partners,” he said, “we’ve got to consult together; but I take it
you won’t feel bad, Sam, if I do most of the consultin’. I went down
East to Batteraft to talk my plans with your father, but he slipped his
cable an’ I’ve got to talk ’em to you. If you see I’m wrong, anywhere,
jest chip in an’ stop me; but otherwise the less you say the more good
we’ll get out’n this ’ere conference.”

“Very well, sir.”

“To start in with, we’ve got a ship, an’ a crew, an’ plenty o’ loose
money. So what’ll we do with ’em? Our business is to trade, an’ to
invest our money so we’ll make more with it. What’s the best way to do
that?”

He seemed to pause for an answer, so I said: “I don’t know sir.”

“Nobody _knows_, of course. But we can guess, and then find out
afterward if we’ve guessed right. All business is a gamble; and, if it
wasn’t, most men would quit an’ go fishin’. After I got back from Japan
I met a lot o’ fellows that had been to Alaska huntin’ gold. Seems like
Alaska’s full of gold, an’ before long the whole country’ll be flockin’
there like sheep. All ’Frisco’s gettin’ excited about the thing, so they
tell me, and if fortunes is goin’ to be made in Alaska, we may as well
speak for one ourselves.”

“But we are not miners, Uncle; and it’s bitter cold up there, they say.”

“Well put. We’ll let the crowds mine the gold, and then hand it over to
us.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” said I, weakly.

“No call for you to try, Sam. I’m your guardeen, an’ so I’ll do the
understandin’ for us both. Folks has to eat, my lad, an’ gold hunters is
usually too excited to make proper provisions fer their stomachs.
They’re goin’ to be mighty hungry out in Alaska, before long, an’ when a
man’s hungry he’ll pay liberal fer a square meal. Let’s give it to him,
Sam, an’ take the consequences—which is gold dust an’ nuggets.”

“How will you do it, Uncle Nabe?”

“Load the ‘Flipper’ with grub an’ carry it to Kipnac, or up the Yukon as
far as Fort Weare, or wherever the gold fields open up. Then, when the
miners get hungry, they’ll come to us and trade their gold for our
groceries. We’re sure to make big profits, Sam.”

“It looks like a reasonable proposition, sir,” I said. “But it seems to
me rather dangerous. Suppose our ship gets frozen in the ice, and we
can’t get away? And suppose about that time we’ve sold out our
provisions. We can’t eat gold. And suppose——”

“S’pose the moon falls out’n the sky,” interrupted Uncle Naboth,
“wouldn’t it be dark at night, though!”

“Well, sir?”

“If the gold-diggers can live in the ice fields, we can live in a good
warm ship. And we’ll keep enough grub for ourselves, you may be sure of
that.”

“When do we start?” I asked, feeling sure that no arguments would move
my uncle to abandon the trip, once he had made up his mind to undertake
it.

“As soon as we can get the cargo aboard. It’s coming on warmer weather,
now, and this is the best time to make the voyage. A steamer left today
with three hundred prospectors, an’ they’ll be goin’ in bunches every
day, now. Already I estimate there’s over a thousand in the fields, so
we won’t get there any too soon to do business. What do you say, Sam?”

“I’ve nothing to say, sir. Being my guardian, you’ve decided the matter
for both the partners, as is right and proper. As your clerk and
assistant, I’ll obey whatever orders you give me.”

“That’s the proper spirit, lad!” he cried, with enthusiasm. “We’ll go to
work tomorrow morning; and if all goes well we’ll be afloat in ten days,
with a full cargo!”

Continue Reading

MY FORTUNES IMPROVE

I awaited with as much patience as I could muster the result of the
venture. I was proud of Uncle Naboth’s bravery, and hoped he would be
successful. Surely the brief interview with my newly acquired relative
had caused a great change in my future prospects, for it was not likely
that my mother’s brother would desert me in my extremity. I had left the
house that was now no longer my home without a single friend to whom I
could turn, and behold, here was a champion waiting to espouse my cause!
Mr. Perkins was somewhat peculiar in his actions, it is true, but he was
my uncle and my dead father’s partner, and already I was beginning to
have faith in him.

It was a full half hour before I saw him coming back along the path; but
now he no longer strutted with proud determination. Instead, his whole
stout little body drooped despondently; his hat was thrust back from his
forehead, and upon his deeply wrinkled face stood big drops of
perspiration.

“Sam,” said he, standing before me with a rather sheepish air, “I were
wrong, an’ I beg your pardon. That woman ain’t no she-tiger. I
mis-stated the case. She’s a she-devil!”

The words were laden with disgust and indignation. Uncle Naboth drew out
his gorgeous handkerchief and wiped his face with it. Then he dropped
upon the bench and pushed his big hands deep into his capacious pockets,
with the air of a man crushed and defeated.

I sighed.

“Then she refused to give up the property?”

“Give up? She’d die first. Why, Sam, the critter tried to brain me with
a gridiron! Almost, my boy, you was an orphan agin. He who fights an’
runs away may n’t get much credit for it, but he’s a durned sight safer
ner a dead man. The Perkinses was allus a reckless crew; but sooner ’n
face that female agin I’d tackle a mad bull!”

“Won’t the law help us?” I asked.

“The law!” cried Mr. Perkins, in a voice of intense horror. “W’y, Sam,
the law’s more to be dreaded than a woman. It’s an invention of the
devil to keep poor mortals from becomin’ too happy in this ’ere vale o’
tears. My boy, if ye ever has to choose between the law an’ a woman, my
advice is to commit suicide at once. It’s quicker an’ less painful.”

“But the law stands for justice,” I protested.

“That’s the bluff it puts up,” said Uncle Naboth, “but it ain’t so. An’
where’s your proof agin Mrs. Ranck, anyhow? Cap’n Steele foolishly put
the house in her name. If she ain’t honest enough to give it up, no one
can take it from her. An’ he kep’ secret about the fortune that was left
in his room, so we can’t describe the things you’ve been robbed of.
Altogether, it’s jest a hopeless case. The she-devil has made up her
mind to inherit your fortune, an’ you can’t help yourself.”

As I stared into the little man’s face the tears came into my eyes and
blurred my sight. He thrust the red handkerchief into my hand, and I
quickly wiped away the traces of unmanly weakness. And when I could see
plainly again my uncle was deeply involved in one of his fits of silent
merriment, and his shoulders were shaking spasmodically. I waited for
him to cough and choke, which he proceeded to do before regaining his
gravity. The attack seemed to have done him good, for he smiled at my
disturbed expression and laid a kindly hand on my shoulder.

“Run up to the house, my lad, an’ get your bundle of clothes,” he said.
“I’ll be here when you get back. Don’t worry over what’s gone. I’ll take
care o’ you, hereafter.”

I gave him a grateful glance and clasped his big, horny hands in both my
own.

“Thank you, uncle,” said I; “I don’t know what would have become of me
if you had not turned up just as you did.”

“Lucky; wasn’t it, Sam? But run along and get your traps.”

I obeyed, walking slowly and thoughtfully back to the house. When I
tried to raise the latch I found the door locked.

“Mrs. Ranck!” I called. “Mrs. Ranck, let me in, please. I’ve come for my
clothes.”

There was no answer. I rattled the latch, but all in vain. So I sat down
upon the steps of the porch, wondering what I should do. It was a
strange and unpleasant sensation, to find myself suddenly barred from
the home in which I had been born and wherein I had lived all my boyhood
days. It was only my indignation against this selfish and hard old woman
that prevented me from bursting into another flood of tears, for my
nerves were all unstrung by the events of the past few hours. However,
anger held all other passion in check for the moment, and I was about to
force an entrance through the side window, as I had done on several
occasions before, when the sash of the window in my own attic room was
pushed up and a bundle was projected from it with such good aim that it
would have struck my head, had I not instinctively dodged it.

Mrs. Ranck’s head followed the bundle far enough to cast a cruel and
triumphant glance into my upturned face.

“There’s your duds. Take ’em an’ go, you ongrateful wretch!” she yelled.
“An’ don’t ye let me see your face again until you come to pay me the
money you owes for your keepin’.”

“Please, Mrs. Ranck,” I asked, meekly, “can I have my father’s watch and
ring?”

“No, no, no!” she screamed, in a fury. “Do ye want to rob me of
everything? Ain’t you satisfied to owe me four hundred dollars a’ready?”

“I——I’d like some keepsake of father’s,” I persisted, well knowing this
would be my last chance to procure it. “You may keep the watch, if
you’ll give me the ring.”

“I’ll keep’m both,” she retorted. “You’ll get nothin’ more out’n me, now
or never!”

Then she slammed down the window, and refused to answer by a word my
further pleadings. So finally I picked up the bundle and, feeling
miserable and sick at heart, followed the path back to the little grove.

“It didn’t take you very long, but that’s all the better,” said my
uncle, shutting his clasp-knife with a click and then standing up to
brush the chips from his lap. “We two’ll go to the tavern, an’ talk over
our future plans.”

Silently I walked by the side of Naboth Perkins until we came to the
village. I knew everyone in the little town, and several of the
fishermen and sailors met me with words of honest sympathy for my loss.
Captain Steele had been the big man of Batteraft, beloved by all who
knew him despite his reserved nature, and these simple villagers, rude
and uneducated but kindly hearted, felt that in his death they had lost
a good friend and a neighbor of whom they had always been proud. Not one
of them would have refused assistance to Captain Steele’s only son; but
they were all very poor, and it was lucky for me that Uncle Naboth had
arrived so opportunely to befriend me.

Having ordered a substantial dinner of the landlord of “The Rudder,” Mr.
Perkins gravely invited me to his private room for a conference, and I
climbed the rickety stairs in his wake.

The chamber was very luxurious in my eyes, with its rag carpet and
high-posted bed, its wash-stand and rocking-chair. I could not easily
withhold my deference to the man who was able to hire it, and removing
my cap I sat upon the edge of the bed while Uncle Naboth took possession
of the rocking-chair and lighted a big briar pipe.

Having settled himself comfortably by putting his feet upon the sill of
the open window, he remarked:

“Now, Sam, my lad, we’ll talk it all over.”

“Very well, sir,” I replied, much impressed.

“In the first place, I’m your father’s partner, as I said afore. Some
years ago the Cap’n found he had more money’n he could use in his own
business, an’ I’d saved up a bit myself, to match it. So we put both
together an’ bought a schooner called the ‘Flipper’, w’ich I’m free to
say is the best boat, fer its size an’ kind, that ever sailed the
Pacific.”

“The Pacific!”

“Naterally. Cap’n Steele on the Atlantic, an’ Cap’n Perkins on the
Pacific. In that way we divided up the world between us.” He stopped to
wink, here, and began his silent chuckle; but fortunately he remembered
the importance of the occasion and refrained from carrying it to the
choking stage. “I s’pose your father never said naught to you about this
deal o’ ours, any more’n he did to that she-bandit up at the house. An’
it’s lucky he didn’t, or the critter’d be claimin’ the ‘Flipper’, too,
an’ then you an’ I’d be out of a job!”

He winked again; solemnly, this time; and I sat still and stared at him.

“Howsomever, the ‘Flipper’ is still in statute loo, an’ thank heaven fer
that! I made sev’ral voyages in her to Australy, that turned out fairly
profitably, an’ brought the Cap’n an’ me some good bits o’ money. So
last year we thought we’d tackle the Japan trade, that seemed to be
lookin’ up. It looked down agin as soon as I struck the pesky shores,
an’ a month ago I returned to ’Frisco a sadder an’ a wiser man. Not that
the losses was so great, Sam, you understand; but the earnin’s wasn’t
enough to buy a shoe-string.

“So I sailed cross-lots to Batteraft to consult with my partner, which
is Cap’n Steele, as to our next voyage, an’ the rest o’ the story you
know as well as I do. Your father bein’ out o’ the firm, from no fault
o’ his’n, his son is his nateral successor. So I take it that hereafter
we’ll have to consult together.”

My amazed expression amused him exceedingly, but I found it impossible
just then to utter a single word. Uncle Naboth did not seem to expect me
to speak, for after lighting his pipe again he continued, with an air of
great complacency:

“It mought be said that, as you’re a minor, I stands as your rightful
guardeen, an’ have a right to act for you ’til you come of age. On the
other hand, you mought claim that, bein’ a partner, your size an’ age
don’t count, an’ you’ve a right to be heard. Howsomever, we won’t go to
law about it, Sam. The law’s onreliable. Sometimes it’s right, an’
mostly it’s wrong; but it ain’t never to be trusted by an honest man. If
you insist on dictatin’ what this partnership’s goin’ to do, you’ll
probably run it on a rock in two jerks of a lamb’s tail, for you haven’t
got the experience old Cap’n Steele had; but if you’re satisfied to let
me take the tiller, an’ steer you into harbor, why, I’ll accept the job
an’ do the best I can at it.”

“Uncle Naboth,” I replied, earnestly, “had you not been an honest man I
would never have known you were my father’s partner, or that he had any
interest in your business. But you’ve been more than honest. You’ve been
kind to me; and I am only too glad to trust you in every way.”

“Well spoke, lad!” cried Mr. Perkins, slapping his knee delightedly.
“It’s what I had a right to expect in poor Mary’s boy. We’re sure to get
along, Sam, and even if I don’t make you rich, you’ll never need a stout
friend while your Uncle Nabe is alive an’ kickin’!”

Then we both stood up, and shook hands with great solemnity, to seal the
bargain. After which my friend and protector returned to his rocker and
once more stretched his feet across the window sill.

“How much property belongs to me, Uncle?” I asked.

“We never drew up any papers. Cap’n Steele knew as he could trust me,
an’ so papers wa’n’t necessary. He owned one-third interest in the
‘Flipper’, an’ supplied one half the money to carry on the trade. That
made it mighty hard to figure out the profits, so we gen’ly lumped it,
to save brain-work. Of course your father’s been paid all his earnin’s
after each voyage was over, so accounts is settled up to the Japan trip.
Probably the money I gave him was in the sea-chest, an’ that old
she-pirate up to the house grabbed it with the other things. The Japan
voyage was a failure, as I told you; but there’s about a thousand
dollars still comin’ to the Cap’n—which means it’s comin’ to you,
Sam—an’ the ship’s worth a good ten thousand besides.”

I tried to think what that meant to me.

“It isn’t a very big sum of money, is it, Uncle?” I asked, diffidently.

“That depends on how you look at it,” he answered. “Big oaks from little
acorns grow, you know. If you leave the matter to me, I’ll try to make
that thousand sprout considerable, before you come of age.”

“Of course I’ll leave it to you,” said I. “And I am very grateful for
your kindness, sir.”

“Don’t you turn your gratitude loose too soon, Sam. I may land your
fortunes high an’ dry on the rocks, afore I’ve got through with ’em. But
if I do it won’t be on purpose, an’ we’ll sink or swim together. An’
now, that bein’ as good as settled, the next thing to argy is what
you’re a-goin’ to do while I’m sailin’ the seas an’ makin’ money for
you.”

“What would you suggest?” I asked.

“Well, some folks might think you ought to have more schoolin’. How old
are you?”

“Sixteen, sir.”

“Can you read an’ write, an’ do figgers?”

“Oh, yes; I’ve finished the public school course,” I replied, smiling at
the simple question.

“Then I guess you’ve had study enough, my lad, and are ready to go to
work. I never had much schoolin’ myself, but I’ve managed to hold my own
in the world, in spite of the way letters an’ figgers mix up when I look
at ’em. Not but what eddication is a good thing; but all eddication
don’t lay in schools. Rubbin’ against the world is what polishes up a
man, an’ the feller that keeps his eyes open can learn somethin’ new
every day. To be open with you, Sam, I need you pretty bad on the
‘Flipper’, to keep the books an’ look after the accounts, an’ do writin’
an’ spellin’ when letters has to be writ. On the last trip I put in four
days hard work, writin’ a letter that was only three lines long. An’ I’m
blamed if the landsman I sent it to didn’t telegraph me for a
translation. So, if you’re willin’ to ship with the firm of Perkins &
Steele, I’ll make you purser an’ chief clerk.”

“I should like that!” I answered, eagerly.

“Then the second p’int’s settled. There’s only one more. The ‘Flipper’
is lyin’ in the harbor at ’Frisco. When shall we join her, lad?”

“I’m ready now, sir.”

“Good. I’ve ordered a wagon to carry us over to the railroad station at
four o’clock, so ye see I had a pretty good idea beforehand what sort o’
stuff Mary’s boy was made of. Now let’s go to dinner.”

Continue Reading

I FIND A RELATIVE

It may have been hours that I sat at my little table, overcome by the
bitterness of my loss. And for more hours I tossed restlessly upon my
hard bed, striving in vain for comfort. But suddenly, as I recalled a
little affectionate gesture of my father’s, I burst into a flood of
tears, and oh, what a relief it was to be able to cry—to sob away the
load that had well-nigh overburdened my young heart!

After that last paroxysm of grief I fell asleep, worn out by my own
emotions, and it was long past my usual hour for rising that I finally
awoke.

In a moment, as I lay staring at the bright morning sunshine, the sorrow
that had been forgotten in sleep swept over me like a flood, and I wept
again at the thought of my utter loneliness and the dreadful fate that
had overtaken my dear father. But presently, with the elasticity of
youth, I was enabled to control myself, and turn my thoughts toward the
future. Then I remembered that Mrs. Ranck and I were to enter the
Captain’s locked room, and take an inventory of his possessions, and I
began hurriedly to dress myself, that this sad duty might be
accomplished as soon as possible. The recollection of the woman’s
preposterous claims moved me to sullen anger. It seemed like a
reflection on father’s honesty to claim that he had been in her debt all
these years, and I resolved that she should be paid every penny she
demanded, that the Captain’s honor might remain untarnished in death,
even as it had ever been during his lifetime.

As soon as I was ready I descended the stairs to the living room, where
Mrs. Ranck sat rocking in her chair, just as I had left her the night
before. She was always an early riser, and I noticed that she had eaten
her own breakfast and left a piece of bacon and corn-bread for me upon
the hearth.

She made no reply to my “good morning, Aunt,” so I took the plate from
the hearth and ate my breakfast in silence. I was not at all hungry; but
I was young, and felt the need of food. Not until I had finished did
Mrs. Ranck speak.

“We may as well look into the Cap’n’s room, an’ get it done with,” she
said. “It’s only nat’ral as I should want to know if I’m goin’ to get
the money back I’ve spent on your keepin’.”

“Very well,” said I.

She went to a drawer of a tall bureau and drew out a small ivory box.
Within this I knew were the keys belonging to my father. Never before
had Mrs. Ranck dared to meddle with them, for the Captain had always
forbidden her and everyone else to enter his room during his absence.
Even now, when he was dead, it seemed like disobedience of his wishes
for the woman to seize the keys and march over to the door of the sacred
room. In a moment she had turned the lock and thrown open the door.

Shy and half startled at our presumption, I approached and peered over
her shoulder. Occasionally, indeed, I had had a glimpse of the interior
of this little place, half chamber and half office; and, once or twice,
when a little child, I had entered it to seek my father. Now, as I
glanced within, it seemed to be in perfect order; but it struck me as
more bare and unfurnished than I had ever seen it before. Father must
have secretly removed many of the boxes that used to line the walls, for
they were all gone except his big sea-chest.

The sight of the chest, however, reassured me, for it was in this that
he had told me to look for my fortune, in case anything should happen to
him.

The old woman at once walked over to the chest, and taking a smaller key
from the ivory box, fitted it to the lock and threw back the lid with a
bang.

“There’s your fortune!” she said, with a sneer; “see if you can find
it.”

I bent over the chest, gazing eagerly into its depths. There was an old
Bible in one end, and a broken compass in the other. But that was all.

Standing at one side, the woman looked into my astonished face and
laughed mockingly.

“This was another o’ the Cap’n’s lies,” she said. “He lied to you about
ownin’ the house; he lied to you about takin’ me out o’ charity; an’ he
lied to you about the fortune in this chest. An easy liar was Cap’n
Steele, I must say!”

I shrank back, looking into her exultant eyes with horror in my own.

“How dare you say such things about my father?” I cried, in anger.

“How dare I?” she retorted; “why, because they’re true, as you can see
for yourself. Your father’s deceived you, an’ he’s deceived me. I’ve
paid out over four hundred dollars for your keep, thinkin’ there was
enough in this room to pay me back. An’ now I stand to lose every penny
of it, jest because I trusted to a lyin’ sea-captain.”

“You won’t lose a dollar!” I cried, indignantly, while I struggled to
keep back the tears of disappointment and shame that rushed to my eyes.
“I’ll pay you every cent of the money, if I live.”

She looked at me curiously, with a half smile upon her thin lips.

“How?” she asked.

“I’ll work and earn it.”

“Pish! what can a boy like you earn? An’ what’s goin’ to happen while
you’re earnin’ it? One thing’s certain, Sam Steele; you can’t stay here
an’ live off’n a poor lone woman that’s lost four hundred dollars by you
already. You’ll have to find another place.”

“I’ll do that,” I said, promptly.

“You can have three days to git out,” she continued, pushing me out of
the room and relocking the door, although there was little reason for
that. “And you can take whatever clothes you’ve got along with you.
Nobody can say that Jane Ranck ain’t acted like a Christian to ye, even
if she’s beat an’ defrauded out’n her just rights. But if ye should
happen to earn any money, Sam, I hope you’ll remember what ye owe me.”

“I will,” said I, coldly; and I meant it.

To my surprise Mrs. Ranck gave a strange chuckle, which was doubtless
meant for a laugh—the first I had ever known her to indulge in. It fired
my indignation to such a point that I cried out: “Shame!” and seizing my
cap I rushed from the house.

The cottage was built upon a small hill facing the bay, and was fully a
quarter of a mile distant from the edge of the village of Batteraft.
From our gate the path led down hill through a little group of trees and
then split in twain, one branch running down to the beach, where the
shipping lay, and the other crossing the meadows to the village. Among
the trees my father had built a board bench, overlooking the bay, and
here I have known him to sit for hours, enjoying the beauty of the view,
while the leafy trees overhead shaded him from the hot sun.

It was toward this bench, a favorite resort of mine because my father
loved it, that I directed my steps on leaving Mrs. Ranck. At the moment
I was dazed by the amazing discovery of my impoverished condition, and
this, following so suddenly upon the loss of my father, nearly
overwhelmed me with despair. But I knew that prompt action on my part
was necessary, for the woman had only given me three days grace, and my
pride would not suffer me to remain that long in a home where my
presence was declared a burden. So I would sit beneath the trees and try
to decide where to go and what to do.

But as I approached the place I found, to my astonishment, that a man
was already seated upon the bench. He was doubtless a stranger in
Batteraft, for I had never seen him before, so that I moderated my pace
and approached him slowly, thinking he might discover he was on private
grounds and take his leave.

He paid no attention to me, being engaged in whittling a stick with a
big jack-knife. In appearance he was short, thick-set, and of middle
age. His round face was lined in every direction by deep wrinkles, and
the scant hair that showed upon his temples was thin and grey. He wore a
blue flannel shirt, with a black kerchief knotted at the throat; but,
aside from this, his dress was that of an ordinary civilian; so that at
first I was unable to decide whether he was a sailor or a landsman.

The chief attraction in the stranger was the expression of his face,
which was remarkably humorous. Although I was close by him, now, he paid
no attention to my presence, but as he whittled away industriously he
gave vent to several half audible chuckles that seemed to indicate that
his thoughts were very amusing.

I was about to pass him and go down to the beach, where I might find a
solitary spot for my musings, when the man turned his eyes up to mine
and gave a wink that seemed both mysterious and confidential.

“It’s Sam, ain’t it?” he asked, with another silent chuckle.

“Yes, sir,” I replied, resenting his familiarity while I wondered how he
should know me.

“Cap’n Steele’s son, I’m guessin’?” he continued.

“The same, sir,” and I made a movement to pass on.

“Sit down, Sam; there’s no hurry,” and he pointed to the bench beside
him.

I obeyed, wondering what he could want with me. Half turning toward me,
he gave another of those curious winks and then suddenly turned grave
and resumed his whittling.

“May I ask who you are, sir?” I enquired.

“No harm in that,” he replied, with a smile that lighted his wrinkled
face most comically. “No harm in the world. I’m Naboth Perkins.”

“Oh,” said I, without much interest.

“Never heard that name before, I take it?”

“No, sir.”

“Do you remember your mother?”

“Not very well, sir,” I answered, wondering more and more. “I was little
more than a baby when she died, you know.”

“I know,” and he nodded, and gave an odd sort of grunt. “Did you ever
hear what her name was, afore she married the Cap’n?”

“Oh, yes!” I cried, suddenly enlightened. “It was Mary Perkins.”

Then, my heart fluttering wildly, I turned an intent and appealing gaze
upon the little man beside me.

Naboth Perkins was seized with another of those queer fits of silent
merriment, and his shoulders bobbed up and down until a cough caught
him, and for a time I feared he would choke to death before he could
control the convulsions. But at last he recovered and wiped the tears
from his eyes with a brilliant red handkerchief.

“I’m your uncle, lad,” he said, as soon as he could speak.

This was news, indeed, but news that puzzled me exceedingly.

“Why have I never heard of you before?” I asked, soberly.

“Haven’t ye?” he returned, with evident surprise.

“Never.”

He looked the stick over carefully, and cut another notch in it.

“Well, for one thing,” he remarked, “I’ve never been in these parts
afore sence the day I was born. Fer another thing, it stands to reason
you was too young to remember, even if Mary had talked to ye about her
only brother afore she died an’ quit this ’ere sublunatic spear. An’,
fer a third an’ last reason, Cap’n Steele were a man that had little to
say about most things, so it’s fair to s’pose he had less to say about
his relations. Eh?”

“Perhaps it is as you say, sir.”

“Quite likely. Yet it’s mighty funny the Cap’n never let drop a word
about me, good or bad.”

“Were you my father’s friend?” I asked, anxiously.

“That’s as may be,” said Mr. Perkins, evasively. “Friends is all kinds,
from acquaintances to lovers. But the Cap’n an me wasn’t enemies, by a
long shot, an’ I’ve been his partner these ten year back.”

“His partner!” I echoed, astonished.

The little man nodded.

“His partner,” he repeated, with much complacency. “But our dealin’s
together was all on a strict business basis. We didn’t hobnob, ner
gossip, ner slap each other on the back. So as fer saying we was exactly
friends—w’y, I can’t honestly do it, Sam.”

“I understand,” said I, accepting his explanation in good faith.

“I came here at this time,” continued Mr. Perkins, addressing his speech
to the jack-knife, which he held upon the palm of his hand, “to see
Cap’n Steele on an important business matter. He had agreed to meet me.
But I saw Ned Britton at the tavern, las’ night, an’ heerd fer the first
time that the ‘Saracen’ had gone to Davy Jones an’ took the Cap’n with
her. So I come up here to have a little talk with you, which is his son
and my own nevvy.”

“Why didn’t you come up to the house?” I enquired.

Mr. Perkins turned upon me his peculiar wink, and his shoulders began to
shake again, till I feared more convulsions. But he suddenly stopped
short, and with abrupt gravity nodded his head at me several times.

“The woman!” he said, in a low voice. “I jest can’t abide women.
’Specially when they’s old an’ given to argument, as Ned Britton says
this one is.”

I sympathized with him, and said so. Whereat my uncle gave me a look
gentle and kindly, and said in a friendly tone:

“Sam, my boy, I want to tell you all about myself, that’s your blood
uncle an’ no mistake; but first I want you to tell me all about
yourself. You’re an orphan, now, an’ my dead sister’s child, an’ I take
it I’m the only real friend you’ve got in the world. So now, fire away!”

There was something about the personality of Naboth Perkins that invited
confidence; or perhaps it was my loneliness and need of a friend that
led me to accept this astonishing uncle in good faith. Anyway, I did not
hesitate to tell him my whole story, including my recent grief at the
news of my dear father’s death and the startling discovery I had just
made that I was penniless and in debt for my living to Mrs. Ranck.

“Father has often told me,” I concluded, “that the house was mine, and
had been put in Mrs. Ranck’s name because he felt she was honest, and
would guard my interests in his absence. And he told me there was a
store of valuable articles in his room, which he had been accumulating
for years, and that the old sea-chest alone contained enough to make me
independent. But when we examined the room this morning everything was
gone, and the chest was empty. I don’t know what to think about it, I’m
sure; for father never lied, in spite of what Mrs. Ranck says.”

Uncle Naboth whistled a sailor’s hornpipe in a slow, jerky, and
altogether dismal fashion. When it was quite finished, even to the last
quavering bar, he said:

“Sam, who kept the keys to the room, an’ the chest?”

“Mrs. Ranck.”

“M—m. Was the room dark, an’ all covered over with dust, when you went
in there this mornin’?”

“I——I don’t think it was,” I answered, trying to recollect. “No! I
remember, now. The blind was wide open, and the room looked clean and in
good order.”

“Sailors,” remarked Mr. Perkins, impressively, “never is known to keep
their rooms in good order. The Cap’n been gone five months an’ more. If
all was straight the dust would be thick on everything.”

“To be sure,” said I, very gravely.

“Then, Sam, it stands to reason the ol’ woman went inter the room while
you was asleep, an’ took out everything she could lay her hands on.
Cap’n Steele didn’t lie to you, my boy. But he made the mistake of
thinkin’ the woman honest. She took advantage of the fact that the Cap’n
was dead, an’ couldn’t prove nothin’. And so she robbed you.”

The suspicion had crossed my mind before, and I was not greatly
surprised to hear my uncle voice it.

“Then, can’t we make her give it up?” I asked. “If she has done such a
wicked thing, it seems as though we ought to accuse her of it, and make
her give me all that belongs to me.”

Uncle Naboth rose slowly from the bench, settled his felt hat firmly
upon his head, pulled down his checkered vest, and assumed a most
determined bearing.

“You wait here,” he said, “an’ I’ll beard the she-tiger in her den, an’
see what can be done.”

Then he gave a great sigh, and turning square around, marched stiffly up
the path that led to the house.

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I HEAR BAD NEWS

“Sam—come here!”

It was Mrs. Ranck’s voice, and sounded more bitter and stringent than
usual.

I can easily recall the little room in which I sat, poring over my next
day’s lessons. It was in one end of the attic of our modest cottage, and
the only room “done off” upstairs. The sloping side walls, that followed
the lines of the roof, were bare except for the numerous pictures of
yachts and other sailing craft with which I had plastered them from time
to time. There was a bed at one side and a small deal table at the
other, and over the little window was a shelf whereon I kept my meager
collection of books.

“Sam! Are you coming, or not?”

With a sigh I laid down my book, opened the door, and descended the
steep uncarpeted stairs to the lower room. This was Mrs. Ranck’s
living-room, where she cooked our meals, laid the table, and sat in her
high-backed wooden rocker to darn and mend. It was a big, square room,
which took up most of the space in the lower part of the house, leaving
only a place for a small store-room at one end and the Captain’s room at
the other. At one side was the low, broad porch, with a door and two
windows opening onto it, and at the other side, which was properly the
back of the cottage, a small wing had been built which was occupied by
the housekeeper as her sleeping chamber.

As I entered the living-room in response to Mrs. Ranck’s summons I was
surprised to find a stranger there, seated stiffly upon the edge of one
of the straight chairs and holding his hat in his lap, where he grasped
it tightly with two big, red fists, as if afraid that it would get away.
He wore an old flannel shirt, open at the neck, and a weather-beaten
pea-jacket, and aside from these trade-marks of his profession it was
easy enough to determine from his air and manner that he was a
sea-faring man.

There was nothing remarkable about that, for every one in our little
sea-coast village of Batteraft got a living from old ocean, in one way
or another; but what startled me was to find Mrs. Ranck confronting the
sailor with a white face and a look of mingled terror and anxiety in her
small gray eyes.

“What is it, Aunt?” I asked, a sudden fear striking to my heart as I
looked from one to the other in my perplexity.

The woman did not reply, at first, but continued to stare wildly at the
bowed head of the sailor—bowed because he was embarrassed and ill at
ease. But when he chanced to raise a rather appealing pair of eyes to
her face she nodded, and said briefly:

“Tell him.”

“Yes, marm,” answered the man; but he shifted uneasily in his seat, and
seemed disinclined to proceed further.

All this began to make me very nervous. Perhaps the man was a
messenger—a bearer of news. And if so his tale must have an evil
complexion, to judge by his manner and Mrs. Ranck’s stern face. I felt
like shrinking back, like running away from some calamity that was about
to overtake me. But I did not run. Boy though I was, and very
inexperienced in the ways of life, with its troubles and tribulations, I
knew that I must stay and hear all; and I braced myself for the ordeal.

“Tell me, please,” I said, and my voice was so husky and low that I
could scarce hear it myself. “Tell me; is—is it about—my father?”

The man nodded.

“It’s about the Cap’n,” he said, looking stolidly into Mrs. Ranck’s cold
features, as if striving to find in them some assistance. “I was one as
sailed with him las’ May aboard the ‘Saracen.’”

“Then why are you here?” I cried, desperately, although even as I spoke
there flashed across my mind a first realization of the horror the
answer was bound to convey.

“’Cause the ‘Saracen’ foundered off Lucayas,” said the sailor, with
blunt deliberation, “an’ went to the bottom, ’th all hands—all but me,
that is. I caught a spar an’ floated three days an’ four nights, makin’
at last Andros Isle, where a fisherman pulled me ashore more dead’n
alive. That’s nigh three months agone, sir. I’ve had fever sence—brain
fever, they called it—so I couldn’t bring the news afore.”

I felt my body swaying slightly, and wondered if it would fall. Then I
caught at a ray of hope.

“But my father, Captain Steele? Perhaps he, also, floated ashore!” I
gasped.

The sailor shook his head, regretfully.

“None but me was saved alive, sir,” he answered, in a solemn voice. “The
tide cast up a many o’ the ‘Saracen’ corpses, while I lay in the fever;
an’ the fisher folks give ’em a decent burial. But they saved the
trinkets as was found on the dead men, an’ among ’em was Cap’n Steele’s
watch an’ ring. I kep’ ’em to bring to you. Here they be,” he continued,
simply, as he rose from his chair to place a small chamois bag
reverently upon the table.

Mrs. Ranck pounced upon it and with trembling fingers untied the string.
Then she drew forth my father’s well-known round silver watch and the
carbuncle ring he had worn upon his little finger ever since I could
remember.

For a time no one spoke. I stared stupidly at the sailor, noticing that
the buttons on his pea-jacket did not match and wondering if he always
sewed them on himself. Mrs. Ranck had fallen back into her tall
rocking-chair, where she gyrated nervously back and forth, the left
rocker creaking as if it needed greasing. Why was it that I could not
burst into a flood of tears, or wail, or shriek, or do anything to prove
that I realized myself suddenly bereft of the only friend I had in all
the world? There was an iron band around my forehead, and another around
my chest. My brain was throbbing under one, and my heart trying
desperately to beat under the other. Yet outwardly I must have appeared
calm enough, and the fact filled me with shame and disgust.

An orphan, now, and alone in the world. This father whom the angry seas
had engulfed was the only relative I had known since my sweet little
mother wearied of the world and sought refuge in Heaven, years and years
ago. And while father sailed away on his stout ship the “Saracen” I was
left to the care of the hard working but crabbed and cross old woman
whom I had come to call, through courtesy and convenience, “Aunt,”
although she was no relation whatever to me. Now I was alone in the
world. Father, bluff and rugged, so strong and resourceful that I had
seldom entertained a fear for his safety, was lying dead in the far away
island of Andros, and his boy must hereafter learn to live without him.

The sailor, obviously uneasy at the effect of his ill tidings, now rose
to go; but at his motion Mrs. Ranck seemed suddenly to recover the use
of her tongue, and sternly bade him resume his seat. Then she plied him
with questions concerning the storm and the catastrophe that followed
it, and the man answered to the best of his ability.

Captain Steele was universally acknowledged one of the best and most
successful seamen Batteraft had ever known. Through many years of
trading in foreign parts he had not only become sole owner of the
“Saracen,” but had amassed a fortune which, it was freely stated in the
town, was enough to satisfy the desires of any man. But this was merely
guess-work on the part of his neighbors, for when ashore the old sailor
confided his affairs to no one, unless it might have been to Mrs. Ranck.
For the housekeeper was a different person when the Captain was ashore,
recounting her own virtues so persistently, and seeming so solicitous
for my comfort, that poor father stood somewhat in awe of her
exceptional nobility of character. As soon as he had sailed she dropped
the mask, and was often unkind; but I never minded this enough to worry
him with complaints, so he was unconscious of her true nature.

Indeed, my dear father had been so seldom at home that I dreaded to
cause him one moment’s uneasiness. He was a reserved man, too, as is the
case with so many sailors, and since the death of his dearly loved wife
had passed but little of his time ashore. I am sure he loved me, for he
always treated me with a rare tenderness; but he never would listen to
my entreaties to sail with him.

“The sea’s no place for a lad that has a comfortable home,” he used to
reply, in his slow, thoughtful way. “Keep to your studies, Sam, my boy,
and you’ll be a bigger man some day than any seaman of us all.”

The Captain’s brief visits home were the only bright spots in my
existence, and because I had no one else to love I lavished upon my one
parent all the affection of which I was capable. Therefore my present
sudden bereavement was so colossal and far reaching in its effects upon
my young life that it is no wonder the news staggered me and curiously
dulled my senses.

Almost as if in a dream I heard Mrs. Ranck’s fierce questions and the
sailor’s reluctant answers. And when he had told everything that he knew
about the matter he got upon his feet and took my hands gently in both
his big, calloused ones.

“I’m right sorry, lad, as ye’ve had this blow,” he muttered, feelingly.
“The Cap’n were a good man an’ a kind master, an’ many’s a time I’ve
heard him tell of his boy Sam. I s’pose he’s left ye provided with
plenty o’ this world’s goods, for he were a thrifty man and mostly in
luck. But if ye ever run aground, lad, or find ye need a friend to cast
a bowline, don’t ye forget that Ned Britton’ll stand by ye through thick
an’ thin!”

With this he wrung my hands until I winced under the pressure, and then
he nodded briefly to Mrs. Ranck and hurried from the room.

The twilight had faded during the interview, and the housekeeper had lit
a tallow candle. As Ned Britton’s footsteps died away the woman bent
forward to snuff the wick, and I noted a grim and determined look upon
her features that was new to them. But her hands trembled somewhat, in
spite of her assumed calmness, and the fact gave me a certain
satisfaction. Her loss could not be compared with mine, but the
Captain’s death was sure to bring about a change in her fortunes, as
well as my own.

She resumed her regular rocking back and forth, riveting her eyes the
while upon my face. I did not sit, but leaned against the table, trying
hard to think. And thus for a long time we regarded each other in
silence.

Finally she cried out, sharply:

“Well, what are you a-goin’ to do now?”

“In what way?” I asked, drearily.

“In every way. How are you goin’ to live, fer one thing?”

“Why, much the same as I am doing now, I suppose,” said I, trying to
rouse myself to attend to what she was saying. “Father owned this house,
which is now mine; and I’m sure there is considerable property besides,
although the ship is lost.”

“Fiddlesticks!” exclaimed Mrs. Ranck, scornfully.

I wondered what she meant by that, and looked my question.

“Your father didn’t own a stick o’ this house,” she cried, in a tone
that was almost a scream. “It’s mine, an’ the deed’s in my own name!”

“I know,” I replied, “but father has often explained that you merely
held the deed in trust for me, until I became of age. He turned it over
to you as a protection to me in case some accident should happen to him.
Many times he has told me that this plan insured my having a home, no
matter what happened.”

“I guess you didn’t understand him,” she answered, an evil flash in her
eye. “The facts is, this house were put into my name because the Cap’n
owed me money.”

“What for?” I asked.

“I’ve kep’ ye in food an’ clothes ever sence ye was a baby. Do ye s’pose
that don’t cost money?”

I stared at her bewildered.

“Didn’t father furnish the money?”

“Not a cent. He jest let it run on, as he did any wages. An’ it counts
up big, that a-way.”

“Then the house isn’t mine, after all?”

“Not an inch of it. Not a stick ner a stone.”

I tried to think what this would mean to me, and what reason the woman
could have for claiming a right to my inheritance.

“Once,” said I, musingly, “father told me how he had brought you here to
save you from the poor-house, or starvation. He was sorry for you, and
gave you a home. That was while mother was living. Afterwards, he said,
he trusted to your gratitude to take good care of me, and to stand my
friend in place of my dead mother.”

“Fiddlesticks” she snapped, again. It was the word she usually used to
express contempt, and it sounded very disagreeable coming from her lips.

“The Cap’n must ’a’ been a-dreamin’ when he told you that stuff an’
nonsense,” she went on. “I’ve treated ye like my own son; there’s no
mistake about that. But I did it for wages, accordin’ to agreement
atween me an’ the Cap’n. An’ the wages wasn’t never paid. When they got
to be a big lump, he put the house in my name, to secure me. An’ it’s
mine—ev’ry stick of it!”

My head was aching, and I had to press my hand to it to ease the pain.
In the light of the one flickering candle Mrs. Ranck’s hard face assumed
the expression of a triumphant demon, and I drew back from it, shocked
and repelled.

“If what you say is true,” I said, listlessly, “I would rather you take
the old home to wipe out the debt. Yet father surely told me it was mine
and it isn’t like him to deceive me, or to owe any one money. However,
take it, Aunt, if you like.”

“I’ve got it,” she answered; “an’ I mean to keep it.”

“I shall get along very well,” said I, thinking, indeed, that nothing
mattered much, now father was gone.

“How will you live?” she enquired.

“Why, there’s plenty besides the house,” I replied. “In father’s room,”
and I nodded my head toward the door that was always kept locked in the
Captain’s absence, “there must be a great many valuable things stored.
The very last time he was home he said that in case anything ever
happened to him I would find a little fortune in his old sea-chest,
alone.”

“May be,” rejoined the old woman, uneasily. “I hope _that_ story o’
his’n, at least, is true, for your sake, Sam. I hain’t anything agin
you; but right is right. An’ the house don’t cover all that’s comin’ to
me, either. The Cap’n owed me four hundred dollars, besides the house,
for your keep durin’ all these years; an’ that’ll have to be paid afore
you can honestly lay claim to a cent o’ his property.”

“Of course,” I agreed, meekly enough, for all this talk of money wearied
me. “But there should be much more than that in the chest, alone,
according to what father said.”

“Let’s hope there is,” said she. “You go to bed, now, for you’re clean
done up, an’ no wonder. In the mornin’ we’ll both look into the Cap’n’s
room, an’ see what’s there. I ain’t a-goin’ to take no mean advantage o’
you, Sam, you can depend on’t. So go to bed. Sleep’s the best cure-all
fer troubles like yours.”

This last was said in a more kindly tone, and I was glad to take her at
her word and creep away to my little room in the attic.

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