On our way home we were brought to a stand at the swing bridge, which lay open to let through a ship. We were too late for the perilous lock; for already the capstans were going, and the ship’s fenders were squeaking and groaning against the masonry. So we stood and waited till fore, main, and mizzen had crawled by; and then I was surprised to observe, foremost and most impatient among the passengers on the opposite side, Mr. Cripps.
The winches turned, and the bridge swung; and my surprise grew, when I perceived that Mr. Cripps made no effort to avoid Grandfather Nat, but hurried forward to meet him.
“Well,” said my grandfather gruffly, “house on fire?”
“No, sir — no. But I thought ——”
“No, Cap’en, not done exactly. But I just got curious noos, an’ so I come to meet you.”
“What’s the news?”
“Not p’raps exactly as you might say noos, sir, but information — information that’s been transpired to me this mornin’. More or less unique information, so to say — uncommon unique; much uniquer than usual.”
With these repetitions Mr. Cripps looked hard in my grandfather’s eyes, as one does who wishes to break news, or lead up to a painful subject. “What’s it all about?” asked Grandfather Nat.
“She was scuttled wilful, Cap’en Kemp, scuttled wilful by Beecher. It’s more’n rumour or scandal: it’s plain evidence.”
My grandfather looked fixedly at Mr. Cripps. “What’s the plain evidence?” he asked.
“That chap that’s been so much in the bar lately,” Mr. Cripps answered, his eyes wide with the importance of his discovery. “The chap that soaks so heavy, an’ shouts at any one you order out. He was aboard the Juno on the voyage out, an’ he deserted at Monte Video to a homeward bound ship.”
“Then he doesn’t know about the wreck.” I thought my grandfather made this objection almost eagerly.
“No, Cap’en; but he deserted ‘cos he said he preferred bein’ on a ship as was meant to come back, an’ one as had some grub aboard — him an’ others. Beecher tried to pile ’em up time an’ again; an’ says the chap — Conolly’s his name — says he, anything as went wrong aboard the Juno was Beecher’s doin’; which was prophesied in the fo’c’sle a score o’ times ‘fore she got to Monte Video. An’— an’ Conolly said more.” Mr. Cripps stole another sidelong glance at Grandfather Nat. “Confidential to me this mornin’, Conolly said more.”
“He said it was the first officer, your son, Cap’en, as prevented the ship bein’ piled up on the voyage out, an’ all but knocked Beecher down once. An’ he said they was near fightin’ half the time he was with ’em, an’ he said — surprisin’ solemn too — solemn as a man could as was half drunk — that after what he’d seen an’ heard, anything as happened to the first mate was no accident, or anything like it. That’s what he said, cap’en, confidential to me this mornin’.”
We were walking along together now; and Mr. Cripps seemed puzzled that his information produced no more startling effect on my grandfather. The old man’s face was pale and hard, but there was no sign of surprise; which was natural, seeing that this was no news, as Mr. Cripps supposed, but merely confirmation.
“He said there was never any skipper so partic’ler about the boats an’ davits bein’ kep’ in order as Beecher was that trip,” Mr. Cripps proceeded. “An’ he kep’ his own life-belt wonderful handy. As for the crew, they kep’ their kit-bags packed all the time; they could see enough for that. An’ he said there was some as could say more’n he could.”
We came in view of the Hole in the Wall, and Mr. Cripps stopped short. “He don’t know I’m tellin’ you this,” he said. “He came in the skipper’s room with a drink, an’ got talkin’ confidential. He’s very close about it. You know what sailors are.”
Grandfather Nat frowned, and nodded. Indeed nobody knew better the common sailor-man’s horror of complications and “land-shark” troubles ashore: of anything that might lead to his being asked for responsible evidence, even for his own protection. It gave impunity to three-quarters of the iniquity practised on the high seas.
“An’ then o’ course he’s a deserter,” Mr. Cripps proceeded. “So I don’t think you’d better say I told you, cap’en — not to him. You can give information — or I can — an’ then they’ll make him talk, at the Old Bailey; an’ they’ll bring others.”
Grandfather Nat winced, and turned away. Then he stopped again and said angrily: “Damn you, don’t meddle! Keep your mouth shut, an’ don’t meddle.”
Mr. Cripps’s jaw dropped, and his very nose paled. “But — but ——” he stammered, “but, Cap’en, it’s murder! Murder agin Beecher an’ Viney too! You’ll do something, when it’s your own son! Your own son. An’ it’s murder, Cap’en!”
My grandfather went two steps on his way, with a stifled groan. “Murder!” he muttered, “murder it is, by the law of England!”
Mr. Cripps came at his heels, very blank in the face. Suddenly my grandfather turned on him again, pale and fierce. “Shut your mouth, d’ye hear? Stow your slack jaw, an’ mind your own business, or I’ll ——”
Grandfather Nat lifted his hand; and I believe nothing but a paralysis of terror kept Mr. Cripps from a bolt. Several people stopped to stare, and the old man saw it. So he checked his wrath and walked on.
“I’ll see that man,” he said presently, flinging the words at Mr. Cripps over his shoulder. And so we reached the Hole in the Wall.
Mr. Cripps sat speechless in the bar and trembled, while Grandfather Nat remained for an hour in the skipper’s parlour with Conolly the half-drunken. What they said one to another I never learned, nor even if my grandfather persuaded the man to tell him anything; though there can be no doubt he did.
For myself, I moved uneasily about the bar-parlour, and presently I slipped out into the alley to gaze at the river from the stair-head. I was troubled vaguely, as a child often is who strives to analyse the behaviour of his elders. I stared some while at the barges and the tugs, and at Bill Stagg’s boat with its cage of fire, as it went in and about among the shipping; I looked at the bills on the wall, where new tales of men and women Found Drowned displaced those of a week ago; and I fell again into the wonderment and conjecture they always prompted; and last I turned up the alley, though whether to look out on the street or to stop at the bar-parlour door, I had not determined.
As I went, I grew aware of a tall, florid man with thick boots and very large whiskers, who stood at the entry, and regarded me with a wide and ingratiating smile. I had some cloudy remembrance of having seen him before, walking in the street of Wapping Wall; and, as he seemed to be coming to meet me, I went on past the bar-parlour door to meet him.
“Ah!” he said with a slight glance toward the door, “you’re a smart fellow, I can see.” And he patted my head and stooped. “Now I’ve got something to show you. See there!”
He pulled a watch from his pocket and opened it. I was much interested to see that the inward part swung clear out from the case, on a hinge, exactly as I had seen happen with another watch on my first evening at the Hole in the Wall. “That’s a rum trick, ain’t it?” observed the stranger, smiling wider than ever.
I assented, and thanked him for the demonstration.
“Ah,” he replied, “you’re as clever a lad as ever I see; but I lay you never see a watch like that before?”
“Yes, I did,” I answered heartily. “I saw one once.”
“No, no,” said the florid man, still toying with the watch, “I don’t believe that — it’s your gammon. Why, where did you see one?”
He shot another stealthy glance toward the bar-parlour door as he said it, and the glance was so unlike the smile that my sleeping caution was alarmed. I remembered how my grandfather had come by the watch with the M on the back; and I remember his repeated warnings that I must not talk.
“—— Why, where did you see one?” asked the stranger.
“In a man’s hand,” I said, with stolid truth.
He looked at me so sharply through his grin that I had an uncomfortable feeling that I had somehow let out the secret after all. But I resolved to hold on tight.
“Ha! ha!” he laughed, “in a man’s hand, of course! I knew you was a smart one. Mine hasn’t got any letter on the back, you see.”
“No,” I answered with elaborate indifference; “no letter.” And as I spoke I found more matter of surprise. For if I had eyes in my head — and indeed I had sharp ones — there was Mrs. Grimes in a dark entry across the street, watching this grinning questioner and me.
“Some have letters on the back,” said the questioner. “Mine ain’t that sort. What sort ——”
Here Joe the potman dropped, or knocked over, something in the bar-parlour; and the stranger started.
“I think I’m wanted indoors,” I said, moving off, glad of the interruption. “Good-bye!”
The florid stranger rose and walked off at once, with a parting smile. He turned at the corner, and went straight away, without so much as a look toward the entry where Mrs. Grimes was. I fancied he walked rather like a policeman.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58