Referred to Arbitration
by Oswald Wildridge
Occasionally, in his moments of idleness, when the reflective mood lay heavily upon him, and he lounged upon the taffrail, watching the waves chase each other astern, William Boundy, better known as Bill, master and owner of the brig Argonaut, had it dimly borne in upon him that once upon a time a woman, with hair turned grey and cheeks deep furrowed, had called him "a bonny laal bairn," had stroked his face with hands that looked so red and hard, yet to the touch were soft as the down upon the petrel's breast, had even kissed him, and with the kiss breathed a benediction on his head. Also it seemed to him that, in a far-away time, he had lived in a house on land, had crouched by a hearthstone whiter than the horses that ride upon the Solway bore, had actually dined from a table shrouded by a snowy cloth, and even slept in a bed with downy pillows and real curtains. All these things Bill Boundy dreamed as he lolled upon the rail, and the Argonaut dipped her shapely nose into the laughing waters, and her tapering spars rocked this way and that, pointing from star to star--dreamed and woke to wonder the truth. "A bonny laal bairn!" It may have been so, long, long years ago, for life has strange possibilities, but all he could be certain of now was that he was Bill Boundy, owner of the dirtiest craft on the Allerdale register; Bill Boundy of the tousled hair and tangled beard, unkempt, unwashed, uncared for; Bill Boundy, whose boat was a reproach to the port, and he a reproach unto himself.
Never, in all his musings, however, did regret give birth to condemnation, and the doubtful merits of analysis he refused to test. For the "why" of things he never lost a moment's sleep, and life's "hows" gave him no concern. From year end to year end he sailed the seas, merely a contented animal, and it was only when the winds were out and the waters raged that he lived the life of a man. Then Bill Boundy's back stiffened straight, and hard as one of the Argonaut's spars, his eyes flashed with the joy of strife, and his voice rang firm, strong, decisive--the voice of a man whose brain was awake, whose heart had yet to quiver to the first touch of fear.
That was Bill Boundy in the storm days, but, alas, his heroic moments were only for the handful of mariners who waited on his word! To the folks on shore he remained a creature of despite and derision, a man who was "as dirty as his ship," and whose ship was "as dirty as its master." Inasmuch as he was a master mariner, it is safe to assume that his jacket originally formed part of a good serge web; but no man might make the assertion with absolute certainty, and when bill made the great discovery of his life, its surface was a combination of tar, rust, grease, and the drippings from Bill's platter. In the matter of buttons, moreover, it indicated an economical mind, for Bill was quite content if there was one on which he could rely. Around the tops of his boots, innocent of all polish save that imparted by grease, his trousers drooped a circle of distressful fringe, and his head was covered by a cap which, if fo'c'sle tales were true, Bill's uncle had worn ten years ago, Bill having adopted it, not because he grudged the money for a new one, but because its fit saved him the exertion of purchase.
Thus the man, and as the man, so the ship. From truck to keelson the Argonaut was her master's complement. Her decks grimy with the stain of the years and much coaldust; her figurehead disconsolate for the loss of its Roman nose, bumped off against the quay wall at Derry, both eyes washed out by the salt of many seas, and minus all its garb of gallant paint; her spars grey and gaunt, ironwork scaled with rust, the sails a collection of canvas patches, brown on grey and grey on brown, and the rigging a riff-raff of splicings and frayed ends.
Nor did the similarity between skipper and craft end here. Alike in their vices, the twain were equally agreed in their virtues, and the men who knew were always ready to bear testimony that both had many good points. Only in appearance did the Argonaut rank as a poor ship. Out upon the waters there were few vessels of the Solway fleet with a finer turn of speed. With the wind on her beam, she would snuggle her clipper stem into the sea and bound forward into the whitened furrow of her own cutting; and when it came to pointing, she would walk away from most of her rivals. She was a sound ship, too, for Bill Boundy's indifference was limited to externals--"paint was nothing but show and vanity"--she was a well-fed ship, also, and her fo'c'sle housed a contented crew.
As a matter of course, Bill's failure to attain the normal standard was darkly resented, and critics such as Solomon Manby, who in his day had boasted "a deck off which t' squire might have eaten his meals," would have had the offender put in irons; whilst the dictum of Bob Sanderson, a recognised authority on theological problems, that "it was only to be accounted for by human depravity an' original sin," met with ready acceptance. In this, however, Bob was in error. For his unfortunate preference for a quiet life Bill Boundy had to thank the ill-starred day when his uncle, the lonely old man who had housed him, fed him, and given him of his best as a substitute for a father's devotion and a mother's sacrificial fidelity, magniloquently waved his hand--a gesture embracing the Argonaut from stem to stern-post--and declared: :it's all for thee, lad, ivvery bit on it. Just thoo larn t' ropes, do thy duty, and help to keep t' oald craft afloat, and when thy uncle's gone to meet Davy Jones, thoo's hev t' ship." In that moment Bill parted with initiative, bade farewell to ambition. Henceforth effort made no demand upon him, for his future was safe. The Argonaut became a neglected ship, and her skipper a neglected man.
Her hatches battened down, her deck a distracting litter of odds and ends, the Argonaut waited for the rising of the tide, and, arms at rest upon the aft companion hood, her skipper waited also. Most of the crew were away back in the town, but, a lonely man and loveless, Bill Boundy had no good-byes to utter--for him there was no parting benediction--and so, pipe between his teeth, he sprawled the time away. Mentally his condition was one of absolute calm. Departure aroused no conflict of emotion within his breast; coming and going, roving and resting, all were part of his common round, part of himself, and his sprawl was the mark of his content.
Shadows cast upon the deck passed their length unheeded, but at last he realised that one of them was stationary, and, glancing up to the quay, he discovered that a pair of blue eyes were taking stock of his brig, and that a pair of daintily moulded lips, at present curved in lines of scorn, were expressing deep disapproval of the grimy confusion rioting upon its boards. Now, many girls had looked upon the Argonaut and laughed, and the skipper had seen and heard, and at once forgotten; but this girl was not as others, and though Bill could not have defined one of the pints of difference, he realised that she was good to look upon, and so he allowed his eyes to linger on her face. They were still resting there when the girl turned from the fo'c'sle to the poop. The blue eyes met the brown, and then, wonder of wonders, red upon tan, Bill Boundy's maiden blush, crimson also on the rose-bloom pink, the first time woman had coloured because of Bill Boundy's look. Jerkily the man rose from the hood and rolled to the further rail, and when he again turned to the wharf, the girl was briskly walking townwards, and in that same moment all his old self-satisfaction fled. Something had been ripped out of his life; something new had entered. Bill Boundy had come to grips with the spirit of discontent.
In a dull, dissatisfied way, he ambled across the poop, but with his foot upon the cabin stairs he paused, and calling to Swash, the mate, he asked: "I say, Ben, d'ye know that girl?"
"What--that one lookin' at t' ship a minute sin'?"
"Oh, that's Cap'n Fairish's lass--Kitty, Ah think they call her. Trim little craft, ain't she?"
Bill moodily nodded his head and plunged out of sight. Entering his cabin, he threw himself on the ragged cushion covering the bench, but in a second was on his feet again, frowning, angry, peering into every corner of his tiny home. Disgust had laid its hand upon him now.
"Faugh!" he ejaculated. "What a dirty hole! I wonder how she'd look if she saw this?"
Then he flicked his bandanna, not over-clean, from his pocket, and , running it along the ledge which served him as a book-case, pipe-rack, and general hold-all, wiped off the dust.
The reformation of Captain Bill Boundy had begun.
A ruder manifestation of the great change was sprung upon the crew of the Argonaut when Ben Swash dropped nimbly down the fo'c'sle ladder primed with an order from the skipper for the holystoning of the deck.
"There's something queer to happen this voyage; I never heard the like of it," he began, by way of breaking the news gently; and then, diplomacy failing him, he blurted out the dire intelligence.
A chuckle from the bunk in the dark corner over his shoulder brought the mate round upon his heel.
"Here, stow that, Tom Carmichael!" he roared. "There's no play-acting about this, I can tell ye, and that's a fact ye'll soon find out."
Amazement, incredulity, alarm stamped upon their faces, the three men stared at the mate, with never a word to voice any of their conflicting emotions.
"Thoo doesn't mean it, Ben?"
Ned Bewsher was the first to recover his speech, and he followed his question by rising from his chest and advancing across the floor. Sam Fawcett came from the other side, and Tom Carmichael, still in his bunk, leaned half over the edge the better to catch the mate's reply.
"Of course I mean it. In a few minutes it'll be your watch above, and I tell ye the skipper's given orders that you've to set to and holystone the deck. I dooted at first whether we'd such a thing as a stone on board, but Sandy tells me there's a few stored away, an' he's getting them out. My sarty, lads, you should hear him!" The mate's face relaxed into a grin. "When Ah told him, he looked as daft as the best on ye; then he started on Kirjath-Jearim, and now he's chunnering out all the jaw-breakers in t' Bible to keep himsel' frae swearing. Eh, it's fine!"
It was no use. Laughter had lost its quality of infection. Humour was all very well in its way, but not when comfort was menaced by a holystone. Amazement was succeeded by resentment. Mutiny--strenuous, unreasoning rebellion--effervesced in the breasts of the watch, and the mate, noting the signs, instantly rallied to the side of authority.
"Now, then, look alive!" he testily cried, as he mounted the ladder. "Look alive and get on deck wi' you, or some of you'll be suppin' sorra!"
A groan fell upon his ears as he reached the fourth step. Tom Carmichael had thrust one foot out of his bunk. As he placed both on the grimy planks, he thus delivered himself---
"Weel, this caps Dick's hatband! I've sailed aboard the Argonaut ivver sin' oald Tom Boundy slipped 'is cable, and Ah thowt Ah'd stay as lang as she or me floated, but I'se nut noo. I'se run at first chance. She's bin a gay cosy little brig, a come day, go day, God send Sunday craft, an' noo we've to turn her upside doon an' mek her into yan o' them nasty speckless ships wheer it's aw worry an' scrub. Poor oald Argonaut, thoo's seen thy best days!"
Misery written all over his face, Tom reluctantly clambered to the deck, where for the next hour the swish of water and the grinding of stone upon sand mingled with the strumming of the wind in the cordage. Down below in his cabin Bill Boundy sat and listened to it all, and at intervals, as the sunrays streaming through the deck lantern fell upon offending patches, he wiped the dust away, muttering as he did so---
"I will, I will! I'll make a throo job of it. I'll not be ashamed of my ship the next time she casts her bonny eyes upon it."
The ragged black beard drooped down upon the guernsey, worn in place of vest because it relieved him of the worry of collar and tie, and boasting a dozen darns of many conflicting shades of blue, dropped lower and lower, and in silence he plodded through a maze of black regrets and bright-hued plans. The spirit of perplexity still held him when he went on deck and broke into a moody pacing of the poop, and the crew, gathering forward, well out of earshot, discussed the mystery that had robbed the skipper of his smile, and threatened to convert him from the merry-hearted comrade into a real marine autocrat, and at the same time to filch from them their luxury of do-nothing hours. Nothing further having happened to give weight to their forebodings, it was generally agreed, long before the Head of Innishowen was raised on the horizon, that they had been victimised by a passing whim, and by the time the point had fallen astern, and the Argonaut was beating up the lough on which the walls of Derry coldly frown, the thing had been dropped into the limbo of trifles not worth remembering.
Three days later it all came back again--came in such fashion that Sandy Falcon, ere he could summon Kirjath-Jearim to his aid, was trapped into cursing the day on which he saw the light--came, so to speak, with a cart which dropped sundry drums of paint on the brig's deck, and another laden with an acre of brand new canvas of the weave out of which sails are sewn, and a third with a pyramid of rope, and another which discharged its boxes and its parcels into the skipper's cabin.
All these and others snugly stowed away, the Argonaut sheered off into the northern seas; and when the winds swept her between the cliffs of Trondhjem, there was the reek of paint about her, and the deck had lost its grime; and when a month had run its course, and she cast anchor in Falmouth Roads, she bobbed and curtsied in all the pride of a new suit of rigging. At last she came back to Allerdale with Black Sea grain underneath her hatches, and to the men who watched as she followed the tug past the pierhead, she was a strange ship, for her gleaming sides and whitened sails were as those of a brig spick and span from the launching-ways.
When they read her name, they marvelled, and when they looked upon Bill Boundy, they spoke to each other of a miracle. For the skipper, like his ship, was a clean man and garbed in new-made clothes, even to his first starched front and his first tie, selected, as only its wearer knew, because of its harmony with a certain pair of eyes.
And it came to pass that, in the glory hour of a certain eve, the girl with the blue eyes walked along the sea-girt hills, Bill Boundy by her side; and again the watchers talked of the miracle, and this time they added--" 'Tis Kitty Fairish who has wrought it."
Whenever a crisis cropped up in the Fairish household, Captain Ned was wont to meet it with the declaration that he could never have thought he would have missed his wife so much, and that if only she had been spared to that particular moment, to assist him in the subjugation of that precise set of circumstances, he would willingly have sacrificed every stiver he had wrested from life.
He made the declaration for the first time even before the bearers had entered the house for her buying. He repeated it nearly every day for a month afterwards; again when Kitty and Nell required new frocks, and he was consulted on the question of cut and cost; again when kitty decided that she was a child no longer, and must wear her hair done up, yielding, however, for a while when her father begged her to remain a lassie just a wee bit longer, adding, as usual, that he did wish her mother had been spared, for she would have known what was the proper thing to do, and he never thought that he could have missed her so much as he did just then. Once more he made the confession when, long after Allerdale had seen into the heart of Bill Boundy's conversion, the scales fell from his eyes too, and he perceived that a double siege had been laid to his little citadel, and that for him there could be no conclusion save capitulation--that Bill Boundy's visits were not merely marks of Bill's new life, and that David Tweddle's calls were not the neighbourly visits to himself he had counted them.
Somehow it seemed as though the bottom had fallen out of his world. His Kitty and his Nell had been his for such a long time; they had filled his thoughts through all their motherless years; he had abandoned the sea years before he would have done, had his wife been left to him, and in his blindness he had never seen the possibility of separation. And now--now--kitty was drifting from him; another year or so, and Nell, too, would go, and the old home would be silent, its walls no longer ring with girlish song, laughter be no longer heard therein. Fearfully he peered into the future and beheld the blackness of desolation. Death only had he counted as cruel, and now life seemed equally ruthless. But yet, when he came to think it over again, he saw that he was wrong. Life had really been very gracious to him. he had had his Kitty for twenty years, his Nell for eighteen, and they had made his home a Paradise for him. He was growing into an old man now, soon he must slip from the moorings upon his last voyage into the unknown, and his girls would need other arms as strong as his, hearts as faithful, else their days would be lonely and their lives cast upon a dreary sea. Yes, the more thought he bestowed upon the subject, the deeper his measure of satisfaction, and in the end he rejoiced within himself because of Kitty's lovers. It was awkward, of course, that there should be two of them, but even in the plurality there was the advantage of selection. Kitty could have her pick. On that point there must be no ,mistake, and once he had made up his own mind as to which man was the better of the two, he must assist his girl in her decision.
For days thereafter Ned Fairish went about with an air of gravity resting heavily upon him. Twice, had anyone followed him, he would have led them to the Low Church--low in the geographical sense as distinguished from the "up street" church, which was geographically "High"--and there he lingered over a well-trimmed grave so long that, when he reached the capstan at the harbour end, the dog-watch had dissolved.
On the third day, however, he foregathered as usual with the cronies, and after five distinct attempts succeeded in blurting out the confession that the skipper of the Argonaut was giving him some concern.
"The lubber," he explained--"he's wanting to--take my Kitty from me! He's not said so yet, but I ken it's coming, and as David Tweddle is of the same way of thinking, I'm in a bit of a quandary. I can't make up my mind which o' the lads is better than t'other, and I must see to it that Kitty doesn't pick t' wrong 'un. What do you think?"
These veterans of the dog-watch, be it here explained, were all described in the register as "Master-Mariner--retired." Since the world began, none save those who held a master's papers had been admitted to the sacred circle, and retirement from the toil of the sea formed the sole right of entry. The moment he had seen his vessel tied up for the last time, the skipper, be his command a full-rigged clipper or only a Solway schooner, was at liberty to take his place in the group which gathered daily by the harbour capstan or under the lighthouse on the breakwater.
Whatever its numbers, the watch was noted for its similarity. Upon each face there was the tan of the sea. Each figure was clothed in the same distinctive garb--silk hat of limpish brim and body atrociously befurred, cut -away coat, and broadcloth trousers, whilst upon each pair of lips the Goddess of Silence had laid her finger, and it was only at rare intervals that they gave way to speech. Even then their method of approach was one of extreme caution, and when Ned Fairish presented his case for their consideration, Solomon Manby's gruff "Oh, aye," and Jerry Brash's equally cold "To be sure, noo," were the only responses vouchsafed. But Ned knew his men, and he was in no way disconcerted.
During the nest three days the conversation rarely rose above monosyllables, but on the fourth, when, in the wake of the ebbing tide, the five ambled shorewards and came to their moorings by the lighthouse, Solomon Manby announced that he had been "thinking over this business of Ned's lass."
"Aye!" from three of the group, and an anxious glance from Captain Ned.
Puff, puff, puff, went the pipes, and for full five minutes not another word was spoken. Then, spreading out his fingers that he might score off his points upon them, Solomon began.
"Aye, I've been turning it over in me mind, an' I think I can see t'course that's to be steered. Mind, I'm not at all sure about it, for, so to speak, we've no chart, but it's worth looking into."
"Now, then, here's where we are"--beginning with his forefinger. "Captain Ned here has a lass that's oald enough to be wedded. Lately two young chaps have begun calling at Cap'n Ned's house. What for? To crack wi't t'Cap'n? That's not likely when there's a bonny lass aboard--never has been, and never will be. If you'll just make a dead reckoning, I'se warrant you'll find out that they care next to nowt about Cap'n Ned, but a good deal aboot his lass.
"Now, then, what? Quite natural like, Cap'n Ned's anxious that his lassie shall have t' pick o' t' bunch, an' he wants to help her with his counsel, an', if she chooses wrong, to put her right; but he canna make up his own mind whether one's better than t'other, or t'other's better than which."
"Now, what's to be done?"
Solomon had reached his little finger by this time, and passively, their faces revealing no concern, three of his four comrades concentrated their gaze upon its tip. But Ned Fairish was evidently out of hand; the man who had battled with a hundred tempests without a tremor was all a-tingle with excitement.
"Now, what's to be done?" Solomon repeated, and then turning to Ned, he emphatically declared: "why, man, there's only one thing for it--you must submit the matter to arbitration."
Captain Ned's face clouded. This promised no assistance--bewilderment, rather.
"Arbitration!" he feebly gasped.
"Aye, arbitration, that's what I said," Solomon assured him, and with a sudden access of enthusiasm he continued--
"It's a grand thing is arbitration. It's one o' them subjects to which, withoot any presumption, I can claim to have paid special attention since I laid up on shore, an' I've convinced myself that we'll never sight t' millennium until every bit randy is settled on them lines, from war to broken windows an' family jars."
"What, now! Here's five on us. We've gathered gear enough to see throo without fashing ourselves any longer. We've all had as much eddication as any man needs' we can box t' compass, so to speak, work oot a dead reckonin', an' strike a bargain; an' tho' Lanty there gets a few extravagant notions now an' agen, t' rest on us has enough common-sense to balance matters."
"Well, now, suppose Allerdale makes up its mind to have no mair to do wi' lawyers, an' us five are appointed a sort of court of arbitration. There's many a score of cases that run away wi' poonds we could settle for a few shillin', an', of course, t' money would mount up in time, an' we might share it out, say every five 'ear. A bit on it might go till t' Navy's upkeep, an' I'd hand over a few poonds til t' National Debt, an' we might spare a bit for t' Queen to buy hersel' a new croon now an' agen, or it might be spent on whatever t' time an' occasion demanded."
"Man, but it's a fine scheme," Ned Fairish interrupted--"fine, an' if I can give you a lift with it, you can reckon on me. But how do you propose to settle this little business of mine?"
"I was coming to that," Solomon responded, "and I'm obliged to you for what you've said. About your own case, what I've got to suggest is that we appoint an arbitration to settle whether your Kitty shall be wedded to Bill Boundy or David Tweddle."
"Being an interested party, you'll drop out o' t' proceedings altogether. Supposing you consent to refer the question, you'll have a voice in t' choice of t' arbitrators, and after that you'll have nowt mair to do except receive the judgment and abide by it. That leaves four. There'll be two wanted for counsel, and I don't think we could do better nor appoint Sam Fletcher here and Lanty Hoodless--they're a pair of fine sea lawyers. Sam has some gift o' t' gab, but circumspect wi' it all, and Lanty's gay fine in t' uptak'. There's mighty few craft that'll sail by him wi' lights out. D'ye remember, Ned, how he brought up that board of surveyors at Liverpool and left them with their sails all aback?"
Fairish nodded, a grim smile upon his face, and Solomon continued.
"Well, now, where are we? You're out, that leaves four; Sam and Lanty appointed to argy the case, that leaves two--me and Jerry brash, and we'll be t' board of arbitration."
"And what's your sailing rules?" Fairish inquired, his tone suggesting a lack of conviction.
"oh, there's not so many as t' Trinity Brethren steer by. As soon as you're ready, we'll fix a day, and when we meet Sam here'll--- You'll take Bill Boundy, Sam? That's all right. Well, as I was saying, Sam will tell t' board of arbitrators all that he knows in favour of Bill, and all that's set down in t' log against David, and explain why and wherefore Bill should make a better husband for your Kitty than t'other lad. An' after that Lanty'll lay aboard Bill and pull him to bits, and show how David's certain to make any woman happy that he's spliced till. Then Jerry and me'll weigh it all up, strike an average, and, as president o' t' board, I'll pronounce judgment in favour of ayder Bill or David."
Solomon glanced along the row of faces triumphantly. This was indeed the hour of his glory, though Ned's next inquiry cast a temporary cloud upon it.
"But," he asked hesitatingly, as one still not quite sure of his bearings, "how'll they take it? David's a bit hot-tempered, and, unless I'm much mistaken in my man, Bill's fair a bulldoggy-like, so that you're not unlikely to raise a tearing squall. You'll look fine if your arbitration ends in black eyes."
Solomon shook his head dejectedly, and from beneath his shaggy eyebrows he turned upon his comrade a look of reproachful pity.
"Eh, Ned, man," he exclaimed, "I gave you credit for a sharper outlook. Don't you see that Bill and David have nowt to do with it? They'll not be there. If you'll keep your tongue between your teeth, they'll never need to know they've been arbitrated on. It's not them we're boddering about, but you. We're proposing to free you fra t' responsibility of making up your mind. T' court of arbitration'll decide which of these two has to have your lass. If t' verdict goes in favour of Bill, when he comes to ask for her, you'll say: 'Take her, an' bless ye both,' and t' thing's done. If we decide for David, and Bill asks first, you'll tell him "No" without any argifying or explanation, and that ends it so far as he's concerned.
"You see, t' beauty of arbitration in a case of this sort stands like this. Firstly, you don't need to worrit any further--you've passed all that on till t' arbitrators; secondly, one man may varra easily miss some important points and make up his mind wrongly, but with ordinary luck two ought to be certain to hit the mark; and, thirdly, if there should happen to be any blunder, you can always point to t' arbitrators as the men to bear the blame."
Secrecy being one of the primary essentials in the grand inquest summoned to adjudicate on the case of Fairish v. Boundy and Tweddle, Solomon Manby was compelled to waive his preference for the harbour end as his courthouse and the capstan for his judicial throne, and consent to the acceptance of Jerry Brash's best parlour. Other doors were, of course, open to them, but Jerry had no women-folks to fash about, and that fact placed the matter beyond the pale of argument.
Here, then, behold the tribunal assembled for its first experiment in domestic arbitration.
Solomon, very dignified, at the head of the table; Jerry Brash, wiry, alert, cool as in days of stress upon his own poop, on the left; counsel for the rival lovers at the foot of the table, both very serious; the audience of one, in the person of Ned Fairish, fidgeting about in a deep arm-chair by the fireside, and obviously perplexed by it all.
Three taps, and Solomon is on his feet; but as he opens his lips, he hesitates, glances along the table--bare, save for its red and blue damask covering--and then makes appeal to the host.
"I say, Jerry, it's a poor sort of arbitration that this looks like. You'll have a few charts handy, suppose? Just root 'em out. I ken this isn't a salvage business quite, and sea-charts haven't much to so wi' courtship, but they'll make things look a bit more official-like."
"Ah, now we're ship-shape!"--as Jerry littered the table with a bundle of thumbed and weather-browned papers. "Now I can set my course an' go ahead."
Thereupon he plunged into an exhaustive survey of the case before the court, and then--fingers again in eloquent service--he presented the points on which they must frame their verdict and pronounce judgment, after which he called upon Sam Fletcher to plead the suit of Captain William Boundy.
Sam pulled out his snuff-box, with impressive deliberation helped himself to a thumbful, replaced the box, rubbed up his glasses, set them astride his nose, buttoned up his coat, and not till the last button had been twisted did he grip the edge of the table and draw himself out of his chair.
"Well, gentlemen all---" he began.
"You might address yourself to the chair, Captain Fletcher," Solomon interrupted, whereupon Sam repaired the omission and began again.
Harking right away back to Bill Boundy's baby days, he made fine play on his client's luckless start in life--father taken from him "before he got any of his rigging rove," deprived of his mother "just when he was shipping his ballast"--and assured the court that if it discovered any flaws in Bill's character, it must attribute them to the sorry condition of his boyhood.
"Why," he continued, "when a babby loses its father, it's like as if his spars had been swept away. I'll not say but what he may manage to rig up jury-masts and flounder intil harbour, but it's not likely. When the mother goes, it's like parting wi' t' sheet-anchor on a lee shore, and you ken what that means; but when they're both taken, it's like t' masts an' rudder an' anchor all being carried by t' board."
"I tell ye, it's wonderful, simply wonderful, how an orphan can manage to steer through life without landing on t' rocks and dropping to pieces. I've tried an' tried an' tried again to fathom t' mystery, an' I always land at t' same conclusion--that it's nothing but the loving-kindness of God that manages it."
Sam paused, his voice a trifle husky, and, seizing the opportunity, Ned Fairish tremulously exclaimed--
"That'll do, Sam--that'll do. I can see my way now, an' you'll not need to bother any more. I'll decide for Bill Boundy. I'm obliged to you---"
"Captain Fairish" --Solomon was glaring across the table--"will you kindly remember that you're only allowed at this inquiry by the special privilege of the court? You've passed this question over for arbitration, and we'll pronounce judgment when we've heard all the evidence, and not half of it. I'm afraid," he added, "that I cannot compliment you on t' possession of a judicial mind."
Abashed by the reproof, Ned retreated in confusion, and counsel resumed his address, wherein he made light of Bill's more glaring faults--on the matter of the great conversion declared that a man who had let a ship get into such a pickle, and had cleaned it up as the Argonaut had been cleaned, had proved his worth to the best woman in the world, and, in proof of his faith, asserted that if he himself had twenty daughters, he would willingly allow Bill Boundy to have the lot. Even now he had not exhausted his theme; he had cunningly kept his great argument for the last, and, advancing from the particular to the general, he boldly expounded the doctrine that none save the mariner was entitled to wed.
"How can a landsman appreciate either a woman or a fireside?" he asked with withering scorn. "He sees his wife every day, she's oalus at his beck an' call; he knows nothing o' t' pain o' parting or t' joy of meeting. All that's reserved for him who goes down to the big waters in a ship; it's what ye might call his monopoly. Going home's nothing to a landsman, for why--because he does it two or three times a day, and slings his hammock there every night; but a sailor only sees his wife and bairns 'tweenwhiles, an' meeting them's like mounting till t' to'gallant mast o' joy. An' when he's sailing over t' seas, whether he's blowing his baccy in peace, wit' bonny stars shining down upon him, or whether he's up aloft, holding on wi' bleeding fingers at a bellerin' sail, his mind's oalus wi' them, an' his thoughts are an everlastin' prayer."
"You'll make a mistake," he concluded, "if you give the lass to any land-lubber. They'll see too much of each other to keep their love bright an' fresh; but if you say Bill Boundy's to have her, she'll be as happy as a Mother Carey's chicken in a gale."
Blowing riotously as a grampus, Sam dropped into his chair and mopped the beads from his brow, and in obedience to the president's "Now for t'other side," Lanty Hoodless rose, and instantly addressed himself to one of the weakest spots in his rival's case.
"Sam her has told us," he remarked, with a jerk of his thumb, "that if he'd twenty daughters, Bill might have 'em all. Well, he's not got a score--he's got three; an' it's varra queer, seeing as sailors mak' such good husbands, an' wi' their father before them as a model, that they should every one have married landsmen. No, no Sam Fletcher, it willn't wash."
"I'll admit that, for love and loyalty to their women-folks, there isn't a landsman alive can lick a sailor, bit think on t' life a sailor's wife has to live. Why, what--it's just purgatory! We've all on us known something of t' sea's greediness, but oor reality's nothing to what their fancy paints it. The wife of a seafarer never sees her man sail away without a shiver, an' till she looks on his face agen, every day she spends is just a spell o' misery and dread. Well I ken the day I sailed on my first voyage after I was wedded. I was aboard the Boyne--she went down wi' all hands among the Charity Islands the very next trip--and we were bound from Liverpool to Iquique, and Mary was standing at the dock gates to wave me good-bye. Man, never shall i forget the look in the poor lass's eyes as we swung oot intil the river. I tell ye it haunted me all throo t' voyage. All the time I knew that she was at home with a heartache; lying awake at nights listening for every howl o' t' winter wind, and thinking every capful of it a hurricane; wading throo t' shipping lists wi' her heart ready to loup intil her mouth, hungering for t' postman's knock an' yet opening the door wi' a trembling hand. That's the life a sailor's wife has to lead.."
"As for Bill Boundy, he's not a bad sort, an' since he's made his brig look a bit more like a Christian, I've thought better of him than before; but when all's said and done, I can't get over the fact that, so to speak, he's only a convert, an', to my thinkin', converts are kittle cattle. You can never fee sure on them; t' oald life always seems to be calling 'em. Like as not, once Bill has won his girl, he'll tire o' t' holystone and paint-brush, an' t' Argonaut'll soon be a lump o' bagwash, a more scandalous object than ever."
Up to this point Lanty's special pleading had closely approximated perfection, and under the melting influence of his eloquence Captain Fairish found all his favour of Bill Boundy's suit evaporating; and at last, in defiance of Solomon's wrath, he punctuated one of Lanty's glowing passages with a second declaration that "that settled it," whereupon counsel for the landsman suddenly collapsed, and his elaboration of the personal claims and domestic virtues of the man whose cause he was appointed to plead dwindled down to a string of jumbled incoherences.
"The fact is, Solomon--Ah beg your pardon, Mr. Chairman," he lamely confessed--"Ah feel as if Ah'd got into strange waters, an' can make nowt of t' marks. There's nowt living so bad to reckon up as a landsman. It seems noo an' again that some o' t' mystery o' t' land itsel' has crept into his nature, and he's beyond me. So that's just where I'm boddered about David Tweddle. I'se not pledge myself for him any more than for any chap what's lived in a house all his life. Not that I've got anything agen him. To be sure, he's a bit too much of a collar an' cuff chap for my liking, but I dar'say he'll grow out o' that; an' if he lives long enough, he'll learn to smoke a good honest pipe instead o' so many dandy cigars."
"Anyway, if he's any bit like, he should make his wife a happier woman nor any sailor, for she'll have her man with her t'day by t'length, and there'll be no worry about the end of t' voyage. It's a risk in ayder case, an' I'se have nowt mair to do with it."
Lanty flung himself back into his chair, a frown glooming from beneath his shaggy eyebrows and upon his square-cut cheeks. He was hurt, disappointed, angry with himself. Somehow he felt that he had been guilty of an act of treachery. He had planned a vigorous plea for David Tweddle, and he realised that he had failed, and in failing had betrayed his trust.
Upon the court his climax fell with embarrassing effect. The situation had become charged with new complications; a new element of uncertainty had been created. Alone did Cap'n Sam Fletcher catch the humour of it all, but his manifestation of mirth was limited to a chuckle. The mild blue eyes of Ned Fairish rolled from one to the other in distressful appeal, whilst Solomon Mandy, lips firmly set, arms folded on the edge of the table, looked the things his tongue refused to say.
"And this is your sea-lawyering, Lanty Hoodless!" he roared at last, when the words came to him. "A bonny coonsel you make, with your prejudice and bias that you canna master! Fash, I'm shamed on you! Arbitration, indeed! I've a mind to rule t' proceedings null and void, and start 'em all over afresh!"
Signs of revolt on two of the faces giving him warning, Solomon made haste to add--"Well, anyway, we can't settle t' business to-night. T' arbitrators'll have to consult, so I'll reserve judgment till--well, it's held over sine die, so to speak."
"Sine die, indeed!" Ned Fairish rejoined, with some show of temper. "An' how long'll that last? I want none o' your sine dies! T" Argonaut's due in two days from now, and if Bill Boundy comes an' asks for my Kitty, what have I to tell him?"
"Tell him," Solomon grimly made answer, "That t' arbitrators have reserved judgment, an' his courtin' mun bide till they've made up their minds."
The Argonaut, timber-laden from the Baltic, was off the port, and from the shelter of the little round house on the cliffs the men of the dog-watch awaited her coming; but in the thoughts of none did the arbitration find a place, for the storm winds were abroad, and the brig's advance was a frantic, panic stricken flight.
Beaten in her dash for shelter within the wide-stretched arms of Ramsey Bay, she had swept through the jaws of the Firth, whither in days of stress the wind-harried waters madly crowd, but find no peace, and now, under poles bare of all their canvas, save a wisp of foresail and a flying jib, she scurried along, past the doors that opened to the place her crew called home, past the doors behind whose barriers love watched in agony.
There at the back of the sea-thrashed breakwater, lying snug at the feet of the hunching line of cliff-like hills, the harbour that no tempest might reach; but out and beyond these the frothing surf, the fury of the harbour bar, the war of tidal rage and current race, and these upon such a day no ship had ever dared and lived.
So the Argonaut went by, and in the hour of her passing men thought of the fangs of the Galloway shore, those iron teeth which, beyond the spray clouds and the mist of spume, grinned their menace of death, thought, too, of the sandy waste stretching far ahead-far, indeed, as the sea might travel, mile upon mile of it--sand in which no anchor will make its grip, greedy, insatiable, ever ready to seize the storm-tossed ship and hold it tight while wind and sea tear it limb from limb. Rock or sand, it matters little which--each is barren of mercy. In the hearts of the watchers Despair links hand with his twin-brother Dread.
And what a crowd it is! Wives to whom the coming of love has but opened the floodgates of sorrow; mothers from whom the sea has filched their joy and buried it fathoms deep; men who have fought the same grim fight for life, who will fight again, and, it may be, end their voyagings amid the rip and tear of rending timber--these and the greyheads of the dog-watch, into whose midst, as they hug the little stone house with the whitened base and the black dome, a woman steals. So engrossed are they upon the tragedy out there that none are conscious of her presence but the father into whose big brawny hand she slips her own, so tiny by the contrast and so cold. Ned Fairish gives one glance into his daughter's face, and, because of the thing he there discerns, the longing in his heart deepens into the passion of prayer.
Five miles away, the Argonaut is scudding fast for Netherport Roads; as well might she seek an anchorage on Burrow Point. Five miles! Soon she will be lost to sight round the rim of the land, and after that naught but those treacherous sands. Roaring, screaming, wailing, the winds charge up the Firth, and from the greater sea outside they bring upon their wings a cloud of blinding sleet and spikes of hail, and beyond the creamy fringe all becomes blotted out.
Five minutes pass, ten, and then, as the dun squall disappears, a gasp of amazement breaks from the lips of the crowd. A great change has been worked out behind the veil. Away in the distance the Argonaut is lying well over, almost on her beam ends; but to those who have trod the sea's mazy path, it is plain that her captain is still fighting, and is pitting his own skill and the strength of his brig against the tempest's might. Low down she lies, decks awash from bow to poop, and, as she hangs thus, the moments drag heavily as hours. Then slowly--oh, so slowly!--the Argonaut, with mighty plunge and thrashing of her sails, worries into the slant of the gale and draws over towards the shore where Scotland's borders lie.
"He's trying to beat oot to sea! God help him! My certes, he's a fine bit lad! Ah thowt he'd a tried to beach he up by Moricambe yon."
Inch by inch, staggering 'neath the buffeting blows of the sea, the Argonaut drags along her course--inch by inch, foot by foot, fathom by fathom. There is a master hand on the helm, and lion-hearted men who answer to the skipper's call. Now, canting over to the farther shore, the storm again flings its pall around her, and the watchers wait with straining eyes and gritted teeth; now on the other tack her black hull sheers out of the impalpable obscurity, and Hope again ascends her throne.
So the titanic fight is waged, brain against force, the skill of man against the might of the tempest. Such men as these were never born for defeat. The Argonaut will win--she must win. Bill Boundy will yet bring her into port when the winds have grown weary and the sea lies down to rest.
Ah! A cry of dismay rattles along the hillside. The brain has faltered, the skipper's judgment has failed him; too long has he held his ship on this tack--too long. Yet, no. Once more he demonstrates the possibility of the impossible; again he forces the Argonaut off, and she drags away from the land. But in a trice it seems she is pointing back again, and with the last tell-tale flapping of the canvas shreds, the light of revelation breaks upon the watch. Now they see the goal at which Bill Boundy aims. Not to the open sea is the Argonaut being compelled--the homeland is calling--he is beating into port, and over the Allerdale bar no ship yet has sailed with a hurricane such as this upon the waters.
Where will she strike? On Burrow Point, that mean, sandy tongue that, stretching its full length under the tide, lurks in wait for helpless craft? No hope for either ship or men if there the voyage is ended. In the sea-scooped hollow just behind the spit of sunken sand? There the ship shall surely perish, but the men aboard her may escape--there, and there only.
Half a league away, the Branty lifeboat plays hide-and-seek in the watery hills and valleys, but no nearer dare she venture, for what can a lifeboat do amid the pounding shallows? Down there, within hail of the big sand-bank, out of the submerged crown of which a lo pole with a pile of brushwood projects warningly, a dozen men have gathered, stout of muscle, brave of heart, jerseyed heroes of the fo'c'sle, fustianed heroes of the mine, and, hempen coils in hand, their eyes riveted upon the oncoming brig, they await the chance to prove their heroism. Under the shelter of the breakwater on the other side of the seething channel, another group, and northward a third is hurriedly pressing. Thus they wait for the final act--wait for death.
Lurching, rolling, burying her nose deep in the waters, rearing aloft until her forefoot shows, down in the hollows, with desks awash, high upon the crests, and the sea pouring in torrents from her scuppers, the Argonaut sweeps steadily onward, shoreward, shoreward all the time.
Now and again, as she reels on the lifting surge, the men upon her decks stand revealed, clinging to the life-lines, hauling at the ropes at infinite peril of the very lives for which they are so strenuously striving, and, towering above them all, the man who really counts. Bill Boundy's ship is in Bill Boundy's hands, and in the grip of his stout arms, his nerve, his tact, the strength of his heart, Hope's last tattered remnant is concentrated. Only for an immeasurable point of time let his nerve fail, his muscles relax, and the fight is over, everything lost.
His head buried in a deep sou'-wester, his body garbed in glistening, streaming oilskins, he stands lightly poised upon the poop and grasps the spokes of the wheel; and because this is a two-men's job, Ned Bewsher bears a hand on the other side, and as coolly as though only westering breezes were abroad, he does the thing his captain's bellowing voice commands.
And ever the waters curl above the bows, and, breaking on the deck, sweep the ship from stem to stern; but never a quiver shakes Bill Boundy's arms, and from beneath the brim of his cap he gazes away to the rim of the nearing breakwater, against which the waves are being churned to foam. And when the waters smite the Argonaut's groaning timbers, and hurl her over into the smother until even her yards are awash, the master hands upon the wheel force her back to a level keel, and when, in angry protest, the ship shakes herself and curvets like a rebel horse, they merely hold on with all the greater tenacity.
Now her distance from the fretted beach may be reckoned by the length of cables; now, thank Heaven, the nose of the spit is passed, and now--from a hundred throats a cry of horror mingles with the diapason of the tempest--the Argonaut is sweeping straight across the harbour mouth, heading right for the breakwater's flinty front. A few seconds more, and she will be ground to matchwood. In spell-bound silence the watchers wait, all save a woman, who sinks upon her knees--she has a lad aboard the ship.
Only a cable's length, and still she plunges ahead. Now the men might almost leap from her bow to the pier, and now--miracle of miracles--a flash of whirling spokes, round go the yards, the sail for a moment backs against the trembling mast, and the Argonaut is pointing up the channel for home.
A cheer is carried over the hills and tossed above the roofs of the town, but is it frail and tremulous, for there is a bravery that stills the tongue, and gratitude that may only be voiced in whispers. Another shout, rollicking, triumphant, breaks forth when the tug, creeping from its sheltered nook, puffs ostentatiously down the fairway and makes offer of a tow. But the peril is past, and the pride of conquest has seized upon the Argonaut's skipper. Thus far he has brought his vessel, and with his own hand he will guide her to her berth. So he waves the tug-boat away, and when the watchers have streamed down from the hills and gathered from the shore, they find the Argonaut warping into the wharf, her skipper's face wreathed in a radiant smile.
Ropes made taut, the vessel snuggling close into the moss-green wall, a dozen men scramble over the taffrail and swarm across the poop to where Bill Boundy stands; and though their words are but few, there is a grip in the fingers, as they close upon the skipper's frozen hand, telling of praise for work well done, speaking a home welcome such as he haw never had before.
Others follow in their train, and now a plank is pushed aboard, and women trip lightly over it, and love becomes articulate. Among them Sarah Salkeld--she who had remembered her prayers--and as she gathers her boy in her arms, she "praises God and Captain Boundy"; among them old Nanny Bewsher, and although her Ned has but one eye wherewith he may look out over a nose broken by a fall from aloft, she greets him as "Eh, my bonny lad, my bonny lad!" among them old Solomon Manby and his comrades of the dog-watch; and, last of all, Ned Fairish and Kitty, whose face is still white as Skiddaw's snow-cap, but in whose eyes there ligers the light of a wondrous joy.
On the shoreward end of the gangway she halts and shyly bids her father go alone; but Ned gently chides her for what he calls "such nonsense," and bids her follow.
"We must let Captain Boundy see how we appreciate him, my lassie," he says. "Never has a ship been handled on the Solway like the Argonaut; never has any man been seen to bring his boat into Allerdale like this. Come along."
So she follows her father to the poop, sees him reach out his hand, hears the first words that fall from his lips, and then suddenly her father slips from her presence, a pair of resolute arms are thrown around her, she is drawn to the breast of a black-bearded giant in oilskins, whose lips shower kisses upon her face; and, forgetting father and all the crowd, and remembering only her love, she slips her arms about Bill Boundy's neck, over which the still dripping sou'-wester hangs, there where all the crowd may see, but it is only the skipper who hears her praise: "My brave lad!"
An exclamation from her father, a chuckle from Lanty Hoodless, the voice of Jerry Brash declaiming something about arbitration, reminds them that the situation demands explanation, and as Kitty, with downcast eyes, demurely withdraws herself from his embrace, her lover suggests retirement to the cabin, an invitation intended only for Kitty and her father, but somehow accepted by the dog-watch also. And there, seated at the head of the little table, with Kitty on one side of him and her father on the other, and the rest crowded upon the cushioned lockers, he explains how, on the night before he sailed, he had told Kitty of his love, and Kitty had confessed the very thing he wanted to hear, and then they had agreed to keep it a secret--their own glorious, golden-edged secret--until the Argonaut returned.
"And you'll let me have her, Captain Fairish?" Bill pleaded. "There's not a lassie in all the world like your Kitty. You ken something of the change she's made in me, but not all. In my reckoning I was just like a drifting ship without compass, and not wanting one, either, and she's simply set a course for me and given me the desire to keep it. She took my empty life in her hands and filled it with more good things than I can think on. You'll say I may have her?"
A quizzical smile overspread the face of Kitty's father, and when he spoke, it was Solomon Manby whom he addressed.
"It's awkward, this, isn't it, Solomon?" he said. "What about that arbitration? Are ye prepared with your judgment yet?"
A moment's pause, then Solomon jerked himself upon his feet, and his voice bellowed upon the timber ceiling.
"Arbitration be blistered! A man that can handle a ship as our eyes have seen Bill Boundy manage his brig to-day is above all t' laws of arbitration or any other law--he's a law till himself. He ought to do what he wants and have what he wants. He---"
"Here, what's all this about arbitration?" the skipper of the Argonaut broke in; and the puzzled look upon his face deepened when a tense silence fell upon the group, and the board of arbitrators glanced guiltily from one to another. Finally Ned Fairish blurted out--
"You mustn't heed that. It was all because I feared to make a mistake. I couldn't decide whether you or--or David Tweddle should have Kitty, and Solomon and the rest of 'em here undertook to settle it by arbitration. But you settled it yourselves. Take her, an' God keep you both!"
Over Bill's face a luxuriant, all-enveloping grin expanded, but Kitty turned to the president of the court, and, shaking a reproving finger, exclaimed--
"Oh, Solomon, Solomon, this is all your doing, I know! You dear, silly old man. I'm surprised at you! Fancy arbitrating on my--my--well, my affairs, and you never took me into account at all!"
Solomon's eyes widened and his jaw dropped. Then, slapping his thigh, he exclaimed--
"That's it--that's just it! I kenned there was a screw loose somewhere when we couldn't mak' up oor minds. It was Kitty's evidence we wanted!"
"And now you've got it," Kitty replied.
***********some of the terms used***************
holystone - soft sandstone used to clean the wooden decks of a ship.
Kirjath-Jearim - "city of woods" - a city in ancient Israel - a Gibeonite town.
Mother Carey's chicken - Wilson's petrel, (also called Mother Carey's chicken), a surface skimmer and habitual boat follower.
diapason - The entire range of a voice or instrument.