The Watchers

Chapter X

In Which I Learn Something from an Illpainted Picture

A.E.W. Mason

I TOOK my supper in the kitchen of the Palace Inn, with a strong reek of tobacco to season it, and a succession of gruesome stories to make it palatable. The company was made up for the most part of fishermen, who talked always of wrecks upon the western islands and of dead men drowned. But occasionally a different accent and a different anecdote of some other corner of the world would make a variation; and doing my best to pierce the haze of smoke, I recognised the speaker as Peter Tortue, the Frenchman, or the man with the patch on his eye. George Glen was there too, tucked away in a corner by the fireplace, but he said very little. I paid, therefore, but a scanty attention, until, the talk having slid, as it will, from dead men to their funerals, some native began to descant upon the magnificence of Adam Mayle’s.

“Ay,” said he, drawing a long breath, “there was a funeral, and all according to orders dictated in writing by the dead man. He was to be buried by torchlight in the Abbey Grounds. I do remember that! Mortal heavy he was, and he needed a big coffin.”

“To be sure he would,” chimed in another.

“And he had it too,” said a third; “a mortal big coffin. We carried him right from his house over the shoulder of the island, and down past the Abbey pond to the graveyard. Five shillings each we had for carrying him—five shillings counted out by torchlight on a gravestone as soon as the grave was filled in. It was all written down before he died.”

Then the first speaker took up the tale again.

“A queer, strange man was Adam Mayle, and queer strange sights he had seen. He would sit in that corner just where you be, Mr. Glen, and tell stories to turn a man cold. Crackers they used to call him on board ship, so he told us—‘Crackers.’”

“Why Crackers? “asked George Glen.

“’Cause he was that handy with a marlinspike. A queer man! And that was a queer notion of his about that stick”; and then he appealed to his companions, who variously grunted their assent.

“What about the stick?” asked Glen.

“You may well ask, Mr. Glen. It was all written down. The stick was to be buried with him in his coffin. It was an old heavy stick with a great brass handle. Many’s the time he has sat on the settle there with that stick atween his knees. ’Twas a stick with a sword in’t, but the sword was broken. I remember how he loosened the handle once while he was talking just as you and I are now, and he held the stick upside down and the sword fell out on to the ground, just two or three inches of steel broken off short. He picked it up pretty sharp and rammed it in again. Well, the stick was to be buried with him, so that if he woke up when we were carrying him over the hill to the Abbey he might knock on the lid of his coffin.”

“But I doubt if any one would ha’ opened the lid if he had knocked,” said one, with a chuckle, and another nodded his head to the sentiment. “There was five shillings, you see,” he explained, “once the ground was stamped down on top of him. It wasn’t quite human to expect a body to open the lid.”

“A queer notion—about that stick.” And so the talk drifted away to other matters. The fishermen took their leave one by one and tramped heavily to their homes. Peter Tortue and his companion followed. George Glen alone remained, and he sat so quiet in his corner that I forgot his presence. Adam Mayle was the only occupant of the room for me. I could see him sitting on the settle, with a long pipe between his lips when he was not holding a mug there, his mulberry face dimly glowing through the puffs of tobacco, and his voice roaring out those wild stories of the African coast. That anxiety for a barbaric funeral seemed quite of a piece with the man as my fancies sketched him. Well, he was lying in the Abbey grounds, and George Glen sat in his place.

Mr. Glen came over to me from his corner, and I called for a jug of rum punch, and invited him to share it, which he willingly did. He was a little squabby man, but very broad, with a nervous twitting laugh, and in his manner he was extremely intimate and confidential. He could hardly finish a sentence without plucking you by the sleeve, and every commonplace he uttered was pointed with a wink. He knew that I had been over at the house under Merchant’s Rock, and he was clumsily inquisitive about my business upon Tresco.

“Why,” said I, indifferently, “I take it that I am pretty much in the same case with you, Mr. Glen.”

At that his jaw dropped a little, and he stared at me utterly discountenanced that I should be so plain with him.

“As for me,” said he in a little, “it is plain enough. And when you say”—and here he twitched my sleeve as he leaned across the table—“‘here’s old George Glen, that battered about the world in ships for fifty years, and has come to his moorings in a snug harbor where rum’s cheap, being smuggled or stole’, says you—well, I am not denying you may be right;”and here he winked prodigiously.

“And that’s just what I said,” I returned; “for here have I battered about London, that’s worse than the sea, and ages a man twice as fast”

Mr. Glen interrupted me with some astonishishment, and, I thought, a little alarm.

“Why,” says he, “this is no place for the likes of you—a crazy tumbledown of a tavern. All very well for tarry sailor folk that’s never seen nothing better than forecastle. But you’ll sicken of it in a week. Sure, you have not dropped your anchor here.*’

“We’ll call it a kedge, Mr. Glen,” said I.

“A kedge, you say,” answered Mr. Glen, with a titter, “and a kedge we’ll make it. It’s a handy thing to get on board in a hurry.”

He spoke with a wheedling politeness, but very likely a threat underlay his words. I thought it wise to take no notice of them, but, rising from my seat, I wished him good night. And there the conversation would have ended but for a couple of pictures upon the wall which caught my eye.

One was the ordinary picture which you may come upon in a hundred alehouses by the sea: the sailor leaving his cottage for a voyage, his wife and children clinging about his knees, and in the distance an impossible ship unfurling her sails upon an impossible ocean. The second, however, it was, which caught my attention. It was the picture of a sailor’s return. His wife and children danced before him, he was clad in magnificent garments, and to prove the prosperity of his voyage he carried in his hand a number of gold watches and chains; and the artist, whether it was that he had a sense of humour or that he merely doubted his talents, instead of painting the watches, had cut holes in the canvas and inserted little discs of bright metal.

“This is a new way of painting pictures, Mr. Glen,” said I.

Mr. Glen’s taste in pictures was crude, and for these he expressed a quite sentimental admiration.

“But,” I objected, “the artist is guilty of a libel, for he makes the sailor out to be a sneakthief.”

Mr. Glen became indignant.

“Because becomes home with wealth untold? “he asked grandly.

“No, but because he comes home with watches,” said I.

Whereupon Mr. Glen was at some pains to explain to me that the watches were merely symbolical.

“And the picture’s true,” he added, and fell to pinching my arm. “There’s many a landsman laughs; but sailors, you says, says you, ‘comes home with watches in their ’ands more than they can ’old and sets up for gentle-folk,’ says you.”

“Like old Adam Mayle, I adds,” said I; and Mr. Glen dropped my arm and stood a little way off blinking at me.

‘’You knew Adam?” he said, in a fierce sort of way.

“No,” I answered.

“But you know of him?”

“Yes,” said I, slowly, “I know of him, but not as much as you do, Mr. Glen, who were quartermaster with him at Whydah on the ship Royal Fortune.”

I spoke at random, wondering how he would take the words, and they had more effect than I had even hoped for. His face turned all of a mottled colour; he banged his fist upon the table and uttered a horrible oath, calling upon God to slay him if he had ever set foot on the deck of a ship named the Royal Fortune,

“And when you says, says you,” he added, sidling up to me, “Old George never see’d a Royal Fortune says you—why, you’re saying what’s right and fair, and I thanks you, sir. I thanks you with a true sailor’s ’eart”; at which he would have wrung my hand. But I had no hand ready for him; I barely heard his words. Whydah—the Guinea coast—the ship Royal Fortune! The truth came so suddenly upon me that I had not the wit to keep silence. I could have bitten off my tongue the next moment. As it was I caught most of the sentence back. But the beginning of it jumped from my mouth.

“At last I know”—I began and stopped.

“What?” said Mr. Glen, with his whole face distorted into an insinuating grin. But he was standing very close to me and a little behind my back.

“That my father thrashed me over twenty years ago,” said I, clapping my hand to my coat tails and springing away from him.

“And you have never forgotten it,” said he.

“On the contrary,” said I, “I have only just remembered it.”

Mr. Glen moved away from the table and walked towards the door. Thus he disclosed the table to me, and I laughed very contentedly. Mr. Glen immediately turned. He had reached the door, and he stood in the doorway biting shreds of skin from his thumb.

“You are in good spirits,” said he, rather surlily.

“I was never in better,” said I. “The motions of inanimate bodies are invariably instructive.”

I was very willing he should think me halfwitted. He went grumbling up the stairs; I turned me again to the picture of the sailor’s return. Whydah—the Guinea coast—the ship Royal Fortune I It may have been in some part the man’s eagerness to deny all knowledge of the ship; it was, no doubt, in some part the picture of those gold watches, which awakened my memories. Watches of just such gold were dangling for sale on a pedler’s stall when first I heard of the ship Royal Fortune. The whole scene came back to me most vividly—the market-place of an old country town upon a fair day, the carts, the crowds, the merry-go-rounds, the pedler’s stall with the sham gold watches, and close by the stall a ragged hawker singing a ballad of the Royal Fortune, and selling copies of the ballad—a ballad to which was added the last confessions of four men hung for piracy at Cape Coast Castle within the flood-marks. It was well over twenty years since that day, but I remembered it now with a startling distinctness. There was a rough woodcut upon the title-page of the ballad representing four men hanging in chains upon four gibbets. I had bought one that afternoon, and my father had taken it from me and thrashed me soundly for reading it. But I had read it! My memory was quickened now to an almost supernatural clearness. I could almost turn over the pages in my mind and read it again. All four men—one of them was named Ashplant, a second Moody—went to the gallows without any sign of penitence. There was a third so grossly stupid—yes, his name was Hardy—so stupid that during his last moments he could think of nothing more important than the executioner’s tying his wrists behind his back, and his last words were before they swung him off to the effect that he had seen many men hanged, but none with their hands tied in this way. The fourth—I could not recall his name, but he swore very heartily, saying that he would rather go to hell than to heaven, since he would find no pirates in heaven to keep him company, and that he would give Roberts a salute of thirteen guns at entrance. There was the story of a sea-fight, too, besides the ballad and the confessions and it all cost no more than a penny. What a well-spent penny! The fourth man’s name, by-the-bye, was Sutton.

But the sea-fight! It was fought not many miles from Whydah between His Majesty’s ship Swallow and the Royal Fortune; for the Royal Fortune was sailed by Captain Bartholomew Roberts, the famous pirate who was killed in this very encounter. How did George Glen or Adam Mayle or Peter Tortue (for he alone of Glen’s assistants was of an age to have shipped on the Royal Fortune) escape? I did not care a button. I had my thumb on George Glen, and was very well content.

There was no doubt I had my thumb on the insinuating George. There was Adam Mayle’s fortune, in the first place; there was Adam’s look when George Glen let slip the name of the ship when he first came to Tresco; there was Glen’s consternation this evening when I repeated it to him, and there was something more than his convincing than his consternation—a table-knife.

He had come very close to me when I mentioned the Royal Fortune, and he had stood a little behind me—against the table at which I had eaten my supper. I had eaten that supper at the opposite side of the table, and how should a table-knife have crawled across the table and be now lying so handily on this nearer edge unless George had doubts of my discretion? Yes, I had my thumb upon him and as I went upstairs to bed I wondered whether after all Helen would be justified of her confidence in believing that I had been sent to Tresco to some good end. Her face was very present to me that night. There was much in her which I could not understand. There was something, too, to trouble one, there were concealments, it almost seemed there was a trace of effrontery—such as Lieutenant Clutterbuck had spoken of; but to-night I was conscious chiefly that she set her faith in me and my endeavours. Does the reed always break if you lean upon it? What if a miracle happened and the reed grew strong because some one—any one—leaned upon it! I kept that trustful face of hers as I had seen it in the sunlight, long before my eyes in the darkness of the room. But it changed, as I knew and feared it would,—it changed to that appalling face which had stared at me out of the dark. I tried to drive that picture of her from my thoughts.

But I could not, until a door creaked gently. I sat up in my bed with a thought of that knife handy on the table edge to the grasp of George Glen. I heard a scuffle of shoeless feet draw towards my door, and I remembered that I had no weapon—not even a knife. The feet stopped at my door, and I seemed to hear the sound of breathing. The moon had already sunk, but the night was clear, and I watched the white door and the white woodwork of the door frame. The door was in the wall on my right; it was about midway between the head and the foot of my bed, and it opened inwards and down towards the foot; so that I should easily see it opening. But suddenly I heard the stair boards creaking. Whoever it was then, had merely stopped to listen at my door. I fell back on my bed with a relief so great as to surprise me. I was surprised, too, to find myself cold with sweat. I determined to buy myself a knife in the morning, for there was the girl over at Merchant’s Point who looked to me. I had thus again a picture of her in the sunlight.

And then I began to wonder at that stealthy descent of the stairs. And why should any one wish to assure himself I slept? This was a question to be looked into. I got out of bed very cautiously, as cautiously opened the door and peered out.

There was a light burning in the kitchen—a small yellow light as of a candle, but I could hear no sound. I crept to the head of the stairs which were steep and led directly to the very threshold of the kitchen. I lay down on the boards of the landing and stretching my head down the stairs, looked into the room.

George Glen had taken the sailor with the watches, down from the wall. He was seated with the candle at his elbow, and minutely examining the picture. He looked up towards the stairs, I drew my face quickly back; but he was gazing in a complete abstraction, and biting his thumb, very much puzzled. I crept back to bed and in a little I heard him come shuffling up the stairs. He had been examining that picture to find a reason for my exclamation. It was a dull-witted thing to do and I could have laughed at him heartily, only I had already made a mistake in taking him to be duller-witted than he was. For he was quick enough, at all events, to entertain suspicions.

The Watchers - Contents    |     Chapter XI - Our Plans Miscarry Upon Castle Down

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