The slave of the lamp, p.28
The Slave of the Lamp,
Silas Lebrun, captain and part-owner of the brig _Agnes and Mary_of Jersey, was an early riser. Moreover, the old gentleman entertainedpeculiar views as to the homage due to Morpheus. He made no elaboratetoilet before entering the presence of that most lovable god. Indeed healways slept in his boots, and the cabin-boy had on several occasionsinvited the forecastle hands to believe that he neither removed theancient sealskin cap from his head nor the wooden pipe from his lipswhen slumber soothed his senses; but this statement was always set asideas unauthenticated.
In person the ancient sailor was almost square, with short legs and abody worthy of promotion to something higher. His face was wrinkled andbrown, like the exterior of that incomprehensible fruit the medlar,which is never ripe till it is bad, and then it is to be avoided. Ayellow-grey beard clustered closely round a short chin, and whenperchance the sealskin cap was absent yellow-grey hair of a similar huecompleted the circle, standing up as high from his brow as fell thebeard downward from his chin. A pair of intensely blue eyes, liquidalways with the milk of human kindness, rendered the hirsute medlar apleasant thing to look at.
The _Agnes and Mary_ was ready for sea, her cargo of potatoes, witha little light weight in the way of French beans and eggs, comfortablystowed, and as Captain Lebrun emerged from what he was pleased to callhis "state-room" with the first breath of a clear morning he performedhis matinal toilet with a certain sense of satisfaction. Thisoperation was simple, consisting merely in the passage of four verybrown fingers through the yellow-grey hair, and a hurried dispersal ofthe tobacco ash secreted in his beard.
The first object that met the mariner's astonished gaze was the longblack form of a man stretched comfortably upon the cabin locker. Thegreen mud adhering to the sleeper's thin shoes showed that he hadclimbed on board at low tide when the harbour was dry.
Captain Lebrun gazed meditatively at the intruder for some moments. Thenhe produced a powerfully-scented pipe of venerable appearance, which hadbeen, at various stages of its existence, bound in a seaman-like mannerwith pieces of tarred yarn. He slowly filled this object, and proceededto inform it in a husky voice that he was "blowed." The pipe was,apparently, in a similar condition, as it refused absolutely to answerto the powerful suction applied to it.
He then seated himself with some difficulty upon the corner of the lowtable, and examined the sleeper critically.
"Poor devil," he again said, addressing himself to his pipe. "He's oneof them priest fellows.--Hi, mister!" he observed, raising his voice.
Christian Vellacott woke up at once, and took in the situation withoutdelay. He was not of those who must go through terrible contortionsbefore regaining their senses after sleep.
"Good morning, Captain!" he observed pleasantly.
"Oh--yourn't a parlee voo, then!"
"No, I'm an Englishman."
"Indeed. Then you'll excuse me, but what in the name of glory are youdoing here?"
Christian sat up and looked at his muddy shoes with some interest.
"Well, the truth is that I am bolting. I want to get across to England.I saw where you hailed from by your rig, and clambered on board lastnight. It seemed to me that when an Englishman is in a hole he cannot dobetter than go to a fellow-countryman for help."
Captain Lebrun made a mighty effort to force a passage through his pipe,and was rewarded by a very high-pitched squeak.
"Ay!" he said doubtfully. "But what sort of hole is it? Nothing dirty,I'm hopin'. Who are yer? Why are ye runnin' away, and who are ye runnin'from?"
Though a trifle blunt the sailor's manner was not unfriendly, andChristian laughed before replying.
"Well," he said, "to tell you the whole story would take a long time.You remember perhaps there was a row, about two months ago, respectingsome English rifles found in Paris?"
"Of course I remember that; we had a lot o' trouble with the Customsjust then. The thing was ferreted out by a young newspaper fellow!"
Christian rubbed his hands slowly together. He was terribly anxious tohear the sequel.
"I am that newspaper fellow," he said, with a quick smile.
Captain Lebrun slowly stood up. He contemplated his pipe thoughtfully,then laying it upon the table he turned solemnly towards Christian, andheld out a broad brown hand which was covered with scales in lieu ofskin.
"Shake hands, mister?" he said.
Christian obliged him.
"And now," he said quickly, "I want to know what has happenedsince--since I left England. Has there been a great row? Has ... hasanybody wondered where I was?"
The old sailor may have had his suspicions. He may have guessed thatChristian Vellacott had not left England at the dictates of his own freewill, for he looked at him very kindly with his liquid blue eyes, andreplied slowly:--
"I couldn't say that _nobody_ hasn't been wonderin' where ye was,but--but there's been nothing in the papers!"
"That is all right! And now will you give me a passage, Captain?"
"Course I will! We sail about eleven this morning. I'm loaded andcleared out. But I should like you to have a change o' clothes. Can'tbear to see ye in them black things. It makes me feel as if I wastalkin' to a priest."
"I should like nothing better," replied Christian, as he rose andcontemplated his own person reflectively.
"Come into my state-room then. I've got a few things of my own, and abit of a slop-chest: jerseys and things as I sell to the men."
The Captain's wardrobe was of a marine character and somewhat rough intexture. He had, however, a coat and waistcoat of thick blue pilot-clothwhich fitted Christian remarkably well, but the continuations thereofwere so absurdly out of keeping with the young fellow's long limbs as toprecipitate the skipper on to the verge of apoplexy. When he recovered,and his pipe was re-lighted, he left the cabin and went forward toborrow a pair of the required articles from Tom Slake, an ordinaryseaman of tall and slim proportions. In a short time Christian Vellacottbore the outward semblance of a very fair specimen of the British tar,except that his cheeks were bleached and sunken, which discrepancy waspromptly commented upon by the blunt old sailor.
Secrecy was absolutely necessary, so Tom, of the long legs, was the onlyperson to whom Christian's presence was made known; and he it was who(in view of a possible berth as steward later on) was entrusted with thesimple culinary duties of the vessel.
Breakfast, as served up by Tom, was of a noble simplicity. A long shinyloaf of yesterday's bread, some butter in a saucer--which vessel wasdeemed entirely superfluous in connection with cups--brown sugar in anold mustard-tin, with portions of yellow paper adhering to it, and solidslices of bacon brought from the galley in their native frying-pan. Suchslight drawbacks, however, as there might have been in the matter oftable-ware disappeared before the sense of kindly hospitality with whichCaptain Lebrun poured the tea into a cracked cup and a borrowedpannikin, dropping in the sugar with careful judgment from his brownfingers. Such defects as there might have lurked in the culinary art ascarried on in the galley vanished before the friendly solicitude withwhich Tom tilted the frying-pan to pour into Christian's plate a brightflow of bacon-fat cunningly mingled with cinders.
When the meal had been duly despatched Captain Lebrun produced his pipeand proceeded to fill it, after having extracted from its inward partsthe usual high-toned squeak.
Christian leant back against the bulkhead with his hands buried deeplyin Tom's borrowed pockets. He felt much more at home in pilot cloth thanin cashmere.
"There is one more thing I should like to borrow," he said.
"Ay?" repeated the captain interrogatively, as he searched in hiswaistcoat-pocket for a match.
"Ay, what is it?"
"A pipe. I have not had a smoke for two months."
The Captain struck a light upon his leg.
"I've got one somewhere," he replied reassuringly; "carried it for manyyears now, just in case this one fell overboard or got broke."
At ten o'clock the _Agnes and Mary_ warped out of harbour anddropped lazily down the Rance, setting sail as she went. Christian hadspent most of the morning in the little cabin smoking Captain Lebrun'sreserve pipe, and seeking to establish order among the accounts of theship. The accounts were the _bete noire_ of the old sailor'sexistence. Upon his own confession he "wasn't no arithmetician," andChristian found, upon inspecting his accounts, no cause to contradictthis ambiguous statement.
When the _Agnes and Mary_ was clear of the harbour he went on deck,where activity and maritime language reigned supreme. The channel wasnarrow and the wind light, consequently the little brig drifted more orless at her own sweet will. This would have been well enough had thewaterway been clear of other vessels, but the Jersey steamer was comingin, with her yellow funnel gleaming in the sunlight, her mail-flagfluttering at her foremast, and her captain swearing on the bridge, withthe whistle-pull in his hand.
Seeing that the _Agnes and Mary_ had no steerage way, the captainstopped his engines for a few minutes, and then went ahead again athalf-speed. This brought the vessels close together, and, as is theinvariable custom in such circumstances, the two crews stared stonily ateach other. On the deck were one or two passengers enjoying the morningair after a cramped and uncomfortable night. Among these was an old manwith a singularly benign expression; he was standing near theafter-wheel, gazing with senile placidity towards St. Malo. As thevessels neared each other, however, he walked towards the rail, andstood there with a pleasant smile upon his face, as if ready to exchangea greeting with any kindred soul upon the _Agnes and Mary_.
Christian Vellacott, seated upon the rail of the after-deck, saw the oldman and watched him with some interest--not, however, altering hisposition or changing countenance. The vessels moved slowly on, and, indue course, the two men were opposite to each other, each at the extremestern of his ship.
Then the young journalist removed Captain Lebrun's spare pipe from hislips, and leaning sideways over the water, called out:
"Good morning, Signor Bruno!"
The effect of this friendly greeting upon the benevolent old gentlemanwas peculiar. He grasped the rail before him with both hands, and staredat the young Englishman. Then he stamped upon the deck with a suddenaccess of fury.
"Ah!" he exclaimed fiercely, while a tiger-like gleam shone out frombeneath his smooth white brows. "Ah! it is you!"
Christian swung his legs idly, and smiled with some amusement across thelittle strip of water.
Suddenly the old man plunged his hand into the breast-pocket of hiscoat. He appeared to be tugging wildly at some article which was caughtin the lining of his clothes, when a remarkable change came over hisface. A dull red colour flew to his cheeks, and his eyes gleamedruddily, as if shot with blood. Then without a word he fell forward withhis breast against the painted rail, remained there a second, and as thetwo ships passed away from each other, rolled over upon his back on theclean deck, grasping a pistol in his right hand.
Christian Vellacott sat still upon the rail, swinging one leg, andsmiling reflectively. He saw the old man fall and the other passengerscrowd round him, but the _Agnes and Mary_ had now caught the breezeand was moving rapidly out to sea, where the sunlight danced upon thewater in little golden bars.
"Apperlexy!" said a voice in the journalist's ear. He turned and foundCaptain Lebrun standing at his side looking after the steamer."Apperlexy!"
"Do you think so?" asked Christian.
"I do," was the reply, given with some conviction. "I seen a man falljust like that; he was a broad-built man wi' a thick neck, and in amoment of excitement he fell just like that, and died a'most at once.Apperlexy they said it was."
"It seemed to come over him very suddenly, did it not?" said Christianabsently.
"Ay, it did," said the captain. "Ye seemed to know him!"
Christian turned and looked his companion full in the face. "I have methim twice," he said quietly. "He was in England for some years, Ibelieve; a political refugee, he called himself."
By sea and land Captain Lebrun had learnt to devote an exclusiveattention to his own affairs, allowing other men to manage theirs, wellor ill, according to their fancy. He knew that Christian Vellacottwished to tell him no more, and he was content that it should be so, buthe had noticed a circumstance which, from the young journalist'sposition, was probably invisible. He turned to give an order to the manat the wheel, and then walked slowly and with some difficulty (forCaptain Lebrun suffered, in a quiet way, agonies from rheumatism) backtowards his passenger.
"Seemed to me," he said reflectively, as he looked upwards to see if theforetopsail was shivering, "as if he had something in his hand when a'fell."
Christian followed the Captain's gaze. The sails were now filling well,and there was an exhilarating sound of straining cordage in the airwhile the vessel glided on. The young journalist was not animpressionable man, but he felt all these things. The sense of openfreedom, the gentle rise and fall of the vessel, the whirring breeze,and the distant line of high land up the Rance towards Dinant--allthese were surely worth hearing, feeling, and seeing; assuredly, theyadded to the joy of living.
"Something in his hand," he repeated gravely; "what was it?"
Captain Lebrun turned sideways towards the steersman, and made a littlegesture with his left hand. A wrinkle had appeared in one corner of theforetopsail. Then he looked round the horizon with a sailor'sfar-seeing gaze, before replying.
"Seemed to me," he mumbled, without taking his pipe from his lips,"that it was a revolver."
Then the two men smoked in silence for some time. The little vesselmoved steadily out towards the blue water, passing a lighthouse builtupon a solitary rock, and later a lightship, with its clean red hullgleaming in the sunlight as it rose and fell lazily. So close were theyto the latter that the man watching on deck waved his hand insalutation.
Still Vellacott had vouchsafed no reply to Captain Lebrun's strangestatement. He sat on the low rail, swinging one leg monotonously, whilethe square little sailor stood at his side with that patient maritimereflectiveness which is being slowly killed by the quicker ways ofsteam.
"My calling brings me into contact with a rum lot of people," said theyoung fellow at last, "and I suppose all of us make enemies withoutknowing it."
With this vague elucidation the little skipper was forced to contenthimself. He gave a grunt of acquiescence, and walked forward tosuperintend the catheading of the anchor.
The Slave of the Lamp by Henry Seton Merriman / Actions & Adventure have rating 2.5 out of 5 / Based on15 votes