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Dead Men's Money(Chapter20)

2006-08-28 23:38

  Chapter XX. The Samaritan Skipper

  I clung to that heaven-sent bit of wreckage, exhausted and weary, until the light began to break in the east. I was numbed and shivering with cold——but I was alive and safe. That square yard of good and solid wood was as much to me as if it had been a floating island. And as the light grew and grew, and the sun at last came up, a ball of fire out of the far horizon, I looked across the sea on all sides, hoping to catch sight of a sail, or of a wisp of smoke——of anything that would tell me of the near presence of human beings. And one fact I realized at once——I was further away from land than when I had begun my battle with death. There was no sign of land in the west. The sky was now clear and bright on all sides, but there was nothing to break the line where it met the sea. Before the fading of the light on the previous evening, I had easily made out the well-known outlines of the Cheviots on one hand and of Says Law on the other——now there was not a vestige of either. I knew from that fact that I had somehow drifted further and further away from the coast. There was accordingly nothing to do but wait the chance of being sighted and picked up, and I set to work, as well as I could on my tiny raft, to chafe my limbs and get some warmth into my body. And never in my life did I bless the sun as I did that morning, for when he sprang out of bed in the northeast skies, it was with his full and hearty vigour of high springtide, and his heat warmed my chilled blood and sent a new glow of hope to my heart. But that heat was not an unmixed blessing——and I was already parched with thirst; and as the sun mounted higher and higher, pouring his rays full upon me, the thirst became almost intolerable, and my tongue felt as if my mouth could no longer contain it.

  It was, perhaps, one hour after sunrise, when my agony was becoming almost insupportable, that I first noticed a wisp of smoke on the southern rim of the circle of sea which just then was all my world. I never strained my eyes for anything as I did for that patch of grey against the cloudless blue! It grew bigger and bigger——I knew, of course, that it was some steamer, gradually approaching. But it seemed ages before I could make out her funnels; ages before I saw the first bit of her black bulk show up above the level of the dancing waves. Yet there she was at last——coming bows on, straight in my direction. My nerves must have given out at the sight——I remember the tears rolling down my cheeks; I remember hearing myself make strange sounds, which I suppose were those of relief and thankfulness. And then the horror of being unseen, of being left to endure more tortures of thirst, of the steamer changing her course, fell on me, and long before she was anywhere near me I was trying to balance myself on the grating, so that I could stand erect and attract her attention.

  She was a very slow-going craft that——not able to do more than nine or ten knots at best——and another hour passed before she was anywhere near me. But, thank God! she came within a mile of me, and I made shift to stand up on my raft and to wave to her. And thereon she altered her course and lumbered over in my direction. She was one of the ugliest vessels that ever left a shipyard, but I thought I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life as she looked in those moments, and I had certainly never been so thankful for anything as for her solid and dirty deck when willing and kindly hands helped me up on it.

  Half an hour after that, with dry clothes on me, and hot coffee and rum inside me, I was closeted with the skipper in his cabin, telling him, under a strict pledge of secrecy, as much of my tale as I felt inclined to share with him. He was a sympathetic and an understanding man, and he swore warmly and plentifully when he heard how treacherously I had been treated, intimating it as the——just then——dearest wish of his heart to have the handling of the man who had played me the trick.

  "But you'll be dealing with him yourself!" said he. "Man!——you'll not spare him——promise me you'll not spare him! And you'll send me a newspaper with the full account of all that's done to him when you've set the law to work——dod! I hope they'll quarter him! Them was grand days when there was more licence and liberty in punishing malefactors——oh! I'd like fine to see this man put into boiling oil, or something of that sort, the cold-hearted, murdering villain! You'll be sure to send me the newspaper?"

  I laughed——for the first time since——when? It seemed years since I had laughed——and yet it was only a few hours, after all.

  "Before I can set the law to work on him, I must get on dry land, captain," I answered. "Where are you going?"

  "Dundee," he replied. "Dundee——and we're just between sixty and seventy miles away now, and it's near seven o'clock. We'll be in Dundee early in the afternoon, anyway. And what'll you do there? You'll be for getting the next train to Berwick?"

  "I'm not so sure, captain," I answered. "I don't want that man to know I'm alive——yet. It'll be a nice surprise for him——later. But there are those that I must let know as soon as possible——so the first thing I'll do, I'll wire. And in the meantime, let me have a sleep."

  The steamer that had picked me up was nothing but a tramp, plodding along with a general cargo from London to Dundee, and its accommodation was as rough as its skipper was homely. But it was a veritable palace of delight and luxury to me after that terrible night, and I was soon hard and fast asleep in the skipper's own bunk——and was still asleep when he laid a hand on me at three o'clock that afternoon.

  "We're in the Tay," he said, "and we'll dock in half an hour. And now——you can't go ashore in your underclothing, man! And where's your purse?"

  He had rightly sized up the situation. I had got rid of everything but my singlet and drawers in the attempt to keep going; as for my purse, that was where the rest of my possessions were——sunk or floating.

  "You and me's about of a build," he remarked. "I'll fit you up with a good suit that I have, and lend you what money you want. But what is it you're going to do?"

  "How long are you going to stop here in Dundee, captain?" I asked.

  "Four days," he answered. "I'll be discharging tomorrow, and loading the next two days, and then I'll be away again."

  "Lend me the clothes and a sovereign," said I. "I'll wire to my principal, the gentleman I told you about, to come here at once with clothes and money, so I'll repay you and hand your suit back first thing tomorrow morning, when I'll bring him to see you."

  He immediately pulled a sovereign out of his pocket, and, turning to a locker, produced a new suit of blue serge and some necessary linen.

  "Aye?" he remarked, a bit wonderingly. "You'll be for fetching him along here, then? And for what purpose?"

  "I want him to take your evidence about picking me up," I answered. "That's one thing——and——there's other reasons that we'll tell you about afterwards. And——don't tell anybody here of what's happened, and pass the word for silence to your crew. It'll be something in their pockets when my friend comes along."

  He was a cute man, and he understood that my object was to keep the news of my escape from Sir Gilbert Carstairs, and he promised to do what I asked. And before long——he and I being, as he had observed, very much of a size, and the serge suit fitting me very well——I was in the streets of Dundee, where I had never been before, seeking out a telegraph office, and twiddling the skipper's sovereign between thumb and finger while I worked out a problem that needed some little thought.

  I must let my mother and Maisie know of my safety——at once. I must let Mr. Lindsey know, too. I knew what must have happened there at Berwick. That monstrous villain would sneak home and say that a sad accident had happened me. It made me grind my teeth and long to get my hands at his lying tongue when I thought of what Maisie and my mother must have suffered after hearing his tales and excuses. But I did not want him to know I was safe——I did not want the town to know. Should I telephone to Mr. Lindsey's office, it was almost certain one of my fellow-clerks there would answer the ring, and recognize my voice. Then everything would be noised around. And after thinking it all over I sent Mr. Lindsey a telegram in the following words, hoping that he would fully understand:——

  "Keep this secret from everybody. Bring suit of clothes, linen, money, mother, and Maisie by next train to Dundee. Give post-office people orders not to let this out, most important. H.M."

  I read that over half a dozen times before I finally dispatched it. It seemed all wrong, somehow——and all right in another way. And, however badly put it was, it expressed my meaning. So I handed it in, and my borrowed sovereign with it, and jingling the change which was given back to me, I went out of the telegraph office to stare around me.

  It was a queer thing, but I was now as light-hearted as could be——I caught myself laughing from a curious feeling of pleasure. The truth was——if you want to analyse the sources——I was vastly relieved to be able to get in touch with my own people. Within an hour, perhaps sooner, they would have the news, and I knew well that they would lose no time in setting off to me. And finding myself just then in the neighbourhood of the North British Railway Station, I went in and managed to make out that if Mr. Lindsey was at the office when my wire arrived, and acted promptly in accordance with it, he and they could reach Dundee by a late train that evening. That knowledge, of course, made me in a still more light-hearted mood. But there was another source of my satisfaction and complaisance: things were in a grand way now for my revenge on Sir Gilbert Carstairs, and what had been a mystery was one no longer.

  I went back to the dock where I had left the tramp-steamer, and told its good-natured skipper what I had done, for he was as much interested in the affair as if he had been my own brother. And that accomplished, I left him again and went sight-seeing, having been wonderfully freshened up and restored by my good sleep of the morning. I wandered up and down and about Dundee till I was leg-weary, and it was nearly six o'clock of the afternoon. And at that time, being in Bank Street, and looking about me for some place where I could get a cup of tea and a bite of food, I chanced by sheer accident to see a name on a brass plate, fixed amongst more of the same sort, on the outer door of a suite of offices. That name was Gavin Smeaton. I recalled it at once——and, moved by a sudden impulse, I went climbing up a lot of steps to Mr. Gavin Smeaton's office.

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