The Joss: A Reversion/Chapter 29
THE FATHER—AND HIS CHILD.
The cabin door was fastened. I rapped. Luke inquired from within—
“I! Open the door.” So far as I could judge no attempt was made to do as I requested. There were whispers instead. The voices were audible though the words were not. I rapped again. “Do you hear? open this door!”
“Beggin’ your pardon, captain, but Mr. Batters isn’t feeling very well. He hopes that you’ll excuse him.”
A louder rapping.
“Open this door.”
There were sounds which suggested that something was being done in a hurry; an exchange of what were apparently expostulatory murmurs. Then the Great Joss spoke.
“This is my cabin, Captain Lander——”
I cut him short
“Your cabin!” I brought my fist against the door with a bang. “If you don’t open at once, I’ll have the ship put about, take you back from where you came, and dump you on shore. I’m in command here, and all the cabins in this ship are mine. Now, which is it to be—open?—or back?”
Luke began to mutter excuses.
“If you’ll just wait five minutes, captain——”
I felt convinced that they were doing something they didn’t wish me to see, and which was highly desirable that I should see. I didn’t wait for Luke to finish. I just planted my shoulder against the door, and heaved. It leaped open. I had counted on the fastenings being rickety. There was Luke and the Great Joss with their hands full of papers and things which they had evidently just been attempting to conceal. The girl stood looking on, I took off my cap to her.
“Miss Batters, I wish to speak to your father in private. Might I ask you to leave us.” She went without a word. I turned to Luke. “Mr. Luke, go up on deck, and wait there till I come.”
There was an ugly look on his face.
“If you don’t mind, captain, I should just like——”
“Do as I tell you, sir, or you cease to be an officer on board this ship.” He saw that I meant business; moved towards the door. “You needn’t trouble to take those things with you.”
“Put them down, you fool,” growled Mr. Batters. Luke put them down, and departed, not looking exactly pretty. When he had gone, pushing the door to I stood with my back against it. The Great Joss and I exchanged glances. He spoke first,
“You’ve a queer way of doing things.”
“I have. Of which fact your presence here is an illustration.”
“I’ve not shipped as one of your crew. I’m a passenger.”
“At present. Whether you continue to be so depends on one or two things. One is that you behave. You come from a place where there are some queer customs.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“What I say.” He winced in a fashion I did not understand, causing me to surmise that the customs in question might be even queerer than I supposed. “The first time, Mr. Batters, you show disrespect for any orders I may give, or wishes I may express, the ship goes round—you go back. I fancy your friends will be glad to receive you back among them.”
He glared at me with his one eye in a manner I did not altogether relish. There was an uncanniness about his looks, his ways, his every movement. As he confronted me, squatted on the floor, he was the most repulsive-looking object I had ever seen. It was hard to believe that such a creature could be human. And English! The sight of him filled me with a sense of nausea. I hastened to go on.
“There is another point on which your continuance as a passenger depends. What do you propose to pay for your passage?”
“I’ve told you—halves.”
“That is too indefinite. I want something more definite. Moreover, it is the rule for passage money to be paid in advance.”
“If you prefer that way of doing business you shall have a hundred pounds apiece for us, and I’ll give you the money now.”
“Is that all? Then the ship goes round.”
“You shall have more if you’ll only wait.”
“Till I’ve had time to look about me. You can’t expect me to have everything cut and dried before I’ve been on board ten minutes. You see these things?” I did. They were everywhere. I wondered where Luke and he proposed to sleep. “They’re worth a million pounds.”
“It’s not nonsense, you—— fool.”
The opprobrious epithet was seasoned with a profusion of adjectives.
“Mr. Batters, that is not the way in which to address the commander of a ship. As I see that you and I are not likely to understand each other I will give instructions to put the ship about at once, and take you back. It’s plain I made a mistake in having anything to do with you.”
I made as if to go.
“Stop, you idiot!”
“Mr. Batters? What did you observe?”
“I apologise! I apologise! What you say is right. I have been used to rummy ways. I can’t slough ’em at sight. Even a snake takes time to change its skin. But when you talk about the value I set on the things I’ve got here being nonsense, it’s you who’re mistaken, not me. Look at that!”
He held up a hideous-looking image. I took it from him, to find it heavier than I had expected.
“That’s gold—solid. Weighs every bit of twenty pounds, sixteen ounces to the pound. It’s got diamonds for eyes, twenty-five or thirty carats apiece; pearls for teeth, and its forehead is studded with opals. The stones in the rings, bracelets, and bangles are all real. I tell you what you’re holding in your hands is not worth far short of fifty thousand pounds.”
“It may be so. I’m no judge of such things. But what proof have I of the correctness of your statements?”
“That’s it; what proof have you? You’ve only my word. You may cut my heart out if I’m wrong. And what I say is this. When we get to London we’ll have them all sold, or else valued—whichever you please. You shall either have half the things—toss for first choice, then choose turn and turn about; or half of whatever they fetch.”
“You’ll give me a written undertaking to that effect?”
“And I can take an inventory of everything you have?”
“If you like.”
“And remove them to my cabin for safer custody?”
“If you think that they will be safer there. You can stow ’em in the hold for all I mind. All I want is for them to be safe, and have my fair half. Only I don’t see what harm they’ll do in here, except that you’ve bursted off the lock, which is a thing as can be replaced. I’m not likely to leave the ship, and I’ll watch it that they don’t go without me.”
There seemed reason in what he said. It sounded fair; above-board enough. Though every pulse shrunk from his near neighbourhood, crying out that there was that about him which was good neither for man nor beast, I could not but admit to myself that this was so.
I was still holding in my hand the obscene image which, according to him, was worth fifty thousand pounds. I had been watching Mr. Batters. Glancing from him to it I saw that, perched upon its head, was a little doll-like looking figure, as long, perhaps, as my middle finger. It was not there a second before. I wondered whence it came, how it retained its place.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“That?” There was a curious something in Mr. Batters’ tone which set my nerves all jangling. “Where I’ve been they call that the God of Fortune. It’s my very own god. It watches over me. When you see it I’m never far away.”
I reached out my disengaged hand to take hold of it for examination. But I seemed to have grown dizzy all of a sudden, and clumsy. It must have been because I was clumsy that, instead of grasping it, I knocked it off its perch. It fell to the floor. I stooped to pick it up.
“I don’t think you’ll find it. I expect it’s gone.”
It did seem to have gone. Or perhaps my sudden dizziness prevented my seeing so small an object in the imperfect light. I certainly did feel strangely giddy. So overpowered wets I by most unusual sensations that, yielding the £50,000 horror into Mr. Batters’ outstretched hand, almost before I knew I found myself on the other side of the cabin door.
I staggered up on deck. The night air did me good. I drew great breaths. The giddiness passed. I begin to ask myself what could have caused it. Had Mr. Batters been practising a little hocus pocus? Playing up to the part of the Great Joss? If I had been sure, I would have put the ship about right there and then. Back he should have gone, to play the part out to the end.
Luke hailed me.
“Beggin’ pardon, captain, but may I go below? Mine’s the next watch. I should like a wink of sleep.”
“You may. A word with you before you go. You got me into this business. I’m not sure I thank you. What do you know about this man Batters?”
He looked up at the stars, as if for an answer to my question.
“Him and me was boys together.”
“We’ve come across each other once or twice. But it’s half a lifetime since we met.”
“You seem to have recognised each other pretty quickly when you did meet.”
“He knew me. I didn’t know him. And never should have done—never. I can’t hardly believe now it’s the Ben Batters I used to know. Only he’s proved it.”
“How came he to be what he is?”
“That’s more than I can say. He hasn’t told me no more than he’s told you. He always was a hot ’un, Ben was. Bound to get into a mess before he’d done. Always a-fightin’. But I never thought he’d have come to this. Fine figure of a man he used to be. They must have took the skin right off him—used him something cruel.”
I shuddered at the thought. Better to have died a dozen deaths.
“Do you think he’s to be trusted?”
“Well—as for trustin’—that depends. Seems to me no one’s to be trusted more than you can help.”
I felt, as he went, that he had summed up his own philosophy. He trusted no one. It was the part of wisdom for no one to trust him. I wished that, in my haste, I hadn’t berthed the two together. The first excuse which offered Luke should be shifted. I did not like the notion of such a pair hobnobbing. The stake was too big.
Someone touched me on the arm. It was the girl.
“Miss Batters! You ought to be in your berth. It’s late.”
Her answer surprised me.
She stood so close that I could hear a little fluttering noise in her throat, as if she found it hard to breathe. I wondered if she was affected by the motion. She did not look as if she were. She was straight as a dart. And beautiful.
“Afraid? Of what?”
“Of the water. There is trouble on the sea. Evil spirits live on it.”
“You needn’t be afraid of evil spirits while you’re with me. Who’s put such notions into your head? English girls aren’t afraid of the sea. And you are English.”
“Is it alive?”
“Is what alive?”
“What makes it go? It rushes through the water; it trembles, I feel it trembling beneath my feet; it makes a noise.”
“Those are the engines.”
“The engines? Are they alive?”
“Alive? Yes, while Mr. Rudd and his friends keep feeding them they’re alive. Come and have a look at them.”
“No, I dare not. I’m afraid.”
“There’s nothing to be afraid of. This is a steamer. The engines drive it along. Don’t you know what a steamer is? Haven’t you ever heard of one?”
She shook her head. I didn’t know what to make of her. Her ignorance was something beyond my experience. Presently she was off on a fresh tack.
“Is England far?”
“Pretty well. If we’ve luck we shall get there in about a month.”
“A month?—four weeks?” I nodded. “I cannot live—four weeks—upon the sea!”
She gave what seemed to me to be a gasp of horror.
“Oh, yes, you can. You’ll get to love it before you’ve done.”
“Love it! Love the sea! No one ever loves the sea.”
“Don’t they? That’s where you’re wrong. I do, for one.”
All in a second down she flopped upon the deck. I was never so flummoxed in my life. I couldn’t think what was wrong.
“Miss Batters! What is wrong?”
She turned her lovely face up to me—still on her knees.
“Are you the lord of the sea?”
“The lord of the sea! For goodness sake get up. The watch ’ll think you’re mad. Or that I’m threatening to murder you.” I had to lift her before she’d move. Then she seemed reluctant to stand upright in my august presence. I tried my best to disabuse her mind of some of her wild notions. “I’m a plain sailor man, I am. I’ve sailed the sea, boy and man, the best part of my life; east and west, north and south. And though I don’t mind owning I like a spell of dry land for a change, it would be strange if I hadn’t grown to love it. I’m ready to grumble at It with any man. I’m no more lord of the sea than you are. I’m just captain of this ship. That’s all.”
“You are the captain of this ship.”
“That’s it, Miss Batters.”
“Why do you call me that?”
“Call you what?”
“Miss Batters. I am not Miss Batters. I am Susan.”
I had been looking away. When she said that I looked at her. I wished I hadn’t. There was something on her face—in her eyes—which set me all of a flutter. Something had come to me since I had entered those waters. I didn’t use to be easily upset. I couldn’t make it out at all. I couldn’t meet her glance, but looked down, smoothing the deck with the toe of my shoe, not recognising the sound of my own voice when I heard it
“I don’t know that I quite care for the name of Susan. I think I prefer—Susie.”
“Susie? What is that?”
“That—that’s the name your friends will call you.”
“My friends?” She gave another little gasp. “Susie?” To hear her say it! “But I have no friends.”
“You will have; heaps.”
“But I have none now. Not one.”
I cleared my throat. I had never been so stuck for a word before. Could have kicked myself for being such a fool. She took my clownishness as implying a reproach. I could tell it from her tone.
“No. I have no friend. Not one.”
I made another effort. I wasn’t lacking as a rule. I couldn’t understand what ailed me then.
“Well, it’s early days for me to speak of friendship, since I’ve only known you for an hour or two; but if I might make so bold, Miss Batters——”
“Miss Batters!” She stamped her foot, her little bare foot. “I am not Miss Batters. I am Susie.” Her tone had changed with a vengeance. Her manner too. She was every inch a queen. A few feet more. “Can I not be Susie to you?”
I turned away. I only wanted to get hold of myself She put my head in such a whirl. But before I had a chance of finding out whereabouts I was her voice rang out like a boatswain’s whistle.
“I hate sailor men.” I turned again to stare. “And I hate the sea!”
Before I could slip a word in edgeways she had swung herself round and vanished down the companion ladder. I took off my cap to wipe my forehead. Though the night was cool my brow was damp with sweat.
“This Is going to be a lively voyage, on my word!”
I had never said a truer thing since the day that I was born.