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.”