CAPTAIN JOHN AND CAPTAIN JEMMY.
At noonday, on the 11th of October, 1673, the little seaport of Harwich, beside the mouth of the River Stour, presented a very lively appearance. More than a hundred tall ships, newly returned from the Dutch War, rode at anchor in the haven, their bright masts swaying in the sunshine above the thatched and red-tiled roofs of the town. Tarry sailors in red and grey kersey suits, red caps and flat-heeled shoes jostled in the narrow streets and hung about St. Nicholas’s Churchyard, in front of the Admiralty House, wherein the pursers sat before bags and small piles of money, paying off the crews. Soldiers crowded the tavern doors—men in soiled uniforms of the Admiral’s regiment, the Buffs and the 1st Foot Guards; some with bandaged heads and arms, and the most still yellow after their seasickness, but all intrepidly toasting the chances of Peace and the girls in opposite windows. Above their laughter, and along every street or passage opening on the harbour—from Cock and Pye Quay, from Lambard’s stairs, the Castleport, and half a dozen other landing-stages—came wafted the shouts of captains, pilots, boatswains, caulkers, longshore men; the noise of artillery and stores unlading; the tack-tack of mallets in the dockyard, where Sir Anthony Deane’s new ship the Harwich was rising on the billyways, and whence the blown odours of pitch and hemp and timber, mingling with the landward breeze, drifted all day long into the townsfolk’s nostrils, and filled their very kitchens with the savour of the sea.
In the thick of these scents and sounds, and within a cool doorway, before which the shadow of a barber’s pole rested on the cobbles, reclined Captain John Barker—a little wry-necked gentleman, with a prodigious hump between his shoulders, and legs that dangled two inches off the floor. His wig was being curled by an apprentice at the back of the shop, and his natural scalp shone as bare as a billiard-ball; but two patches of brindled grey hair stuck out from his brow above a pair of fierce greenish eyes set about with a complexity of wrinkles. Just now, a coating of lather covered his shrewish underjaw.
The dress of this unlovely old gentleman well became his rank as captain of his Majesty’s frigate the Wasp, but went very ill with his figure—being, indeed, a square-cut coat of scarlet, laced with gold, a long-flapped blue waistcoat, black breeches and stockings. Enormous buckles adorned the thick-soled shoes which he drummed impatiently against the legs of his chair.
The barber—a round, bustling fellow—stropped his razor and prattled gossip. On a settle to the right a couple of townsmen smoked, listened, and waited their turn with an educated patience.
“Changes, indeed, since you left us, Captain John,” the barber began, his razor hovering for the first scrape.
“Wait a moment. You were about to take hold of me by the nose. If you do it, I’ll run you through. I thought you’d like to be warned, that’s all. Go on with your chatter.”
“Certainly, Captain John—’tis merely a habit—”
“Break yourself of it.”
“I will, sir. But, as I was saying, the changes will astonish you that have been at sea so long. In the first place, a riding-post started from hence to London and from London hither a-gallop with brazen trumpet and loaded pistols, to keep his Majesty certified every day of the Fleet’s doings, and the Fleet of his Majesty’s wishes; and all Harwich a-tremble half the night under its bedclothes, but consoled to find the King taking so much notice of it. And the old jail moved from St. Austin’s Gate, and a new one building this side of Church Street, where Calamy’s Store used to stand—with a new town-hall, too—”
Here, as he paused to scrape the captain’s cheek, one of the two townsmen on the settle—a square man in grey, with a red waistcoat— withdrew the long pipe from his mouth and groaned heavily.
“What’s that?” asked the hunchback snappishly.
“That, sir, is Mr. Pomphlett,” the barber explained. “He disapproves of the amount spent in decorating the new hall with pillars, rails, balusters, and what not; for the king’s arms, to be carved over the mayor’s seat and richly gilt, are to be a private gift of Mr. Isaac Betts, and the leathern fire-buckets to be hung round the wall—”
Mr. Pomphlett emitted another groan, which the barber good-naturedly tried to drown in talk. Captain Barker heard it, however.
“There it is again!”
“Yes, sir. You see Mr. Pomphlett allows his public spirit to run high. He says—”
The little captain jerked round in his chair, escaping a gash by a hair’s-breadth, and addressed the heavy citizen—
“Mr. Pomphlett, sir, it was not for the sake of listening to your observations upon public affairs that I came straight off my ship to this shop, but to hear the news.”
The barber coughed. Mr. Pomphlett feebly traced a curve in the air with his pipe-stem, and answered sulkily—
“I s-said nun-nothing. I f-felt unwell.”
“He suffers,” interposed Mr. Pomphlett’s neighbour on the settle, a long-necked man in brown, “from the wind; don’t you, Pomphlett?”
Mr. Pomphlett nodded with an aggrieved air, and sucked his pipe.
“Death,” continued the man in brown, by way of setting the conversation on its legs again, “has been busy in Harwich, Barker.”
“Ah! now we come to business! Barber, who’s dead?”
“Alderman Croten, sir.”
“Tut-tut. Croten gone?”
“Yes, sir; palsy took him at a ripe age. And Abel’s gone, the Town Crier; and old Mistress Pinch’s bad leg carried her from us last Christmas Day, of all days in the year; and young Mr. Eastwell was snatched away by a chain-shot in the affair with the Smyrna fleet; and Mistress Salt—that was daughter of old Sir Jabez Tellworthy, and broke her father’s heart—she’s a widow in straitened circumstances, and living up at the old house again—”
Captain Barker bounced off his chair like a dried pea from a shovel.
“There now! Your honour’s chin is wounded.”
“P’sh! give me your towel.” He snatched it from the barber’s arm and mopped away the blood and lather from his jaw. “Mistress Salt a widow? When? How?”
“I thought, maybe, your honour would know about it.”
“Don’t think. Roderick Salt dead? Tell me this instant, or—”
“He was drowned, sir, in a ditch, they tell me, but two months after he sailed with his company of Foot Guards, in the spring of this year. It seems ’twas a ditch that the Marshal Turenne had the misfortune to forget about—”
“My hat—where is it? Quick!”
Already Captain Barker had plucked the napkin from his throat, caught up his sword from a chair, and was buckling on the belt in a tremendous hurry.
“But your honour forgets the wig, which is but half curled; and your honour’s face shaved on the one side only.”
The hunchback’s answer was to snatch his wig from between the apprentice’s tongs, clap it on his head, ram his hat on the top of it, and flounce out at the shop door.
The streets were full of folk, but he passed through them at an amazing speed. His natural gait on shipboard was a kind of anapaestic dance—two short steps and a long—and though the crowd interrupted its cadence and coerced him to a quick bobbing motion, as of a bottle in a choppy sea, it hardly affected his pace. Here and there he snapped out a greeting to some ship’s captain or townsman of his acquaintance, or growled testily at a row of soldiers bearing down on him three abreast. His angry green eyes seemed to clear a path before him, in spite of the grins which his hump and shambling legs excited among strangers. In this way he darted along High Street, turned up by the markets, crossed Church Street into West Street, and passed under the great gate by which the London Road left the town.
Beyond this gate the road ran through a tall ravelin and out upon a breezy peninsula between the river and the open sea. And here Captain Barker halted and, tugging off hat and wig, wiped his crown with a silk handkerchief.
Over the reedy marsh upon his right, where a windmill waved its lazy arms, a score of larks were singing. To his left the gulls mewed across the cliffs and the remoter sandbanks that thrust up their yellow ridges under the ebb-tide. The hum of the little town sounded drowsily behind him.
He gazed across the sandbanks upon the blue leagues of sea, and rubbed his fingers softly up and down the unshaven side of his face.
“H’m,” he said, and then “p’sh!” and then “p’sh!” again; and, as if this settled it, readjusted his wig and hat and set off down the road faster than ever.
A cluster of stunted poplars appeared in the distance, and a long thatched house; then, between the trees, the eye caught sight of two other buildings, exactly alike, but of a curious shape and colour. Imagine two round towers, each about forty feet in height, daubed with a bright blue wash and surmounted with a high-pitched, conical roof of a somewhat darker tint. Above each roof a gilt vane glittered, and a flock of white pigeons circled overhead or, alighting, dotted the tiles with patches of silver.
A bend of the road broke up this cluster of trees and buildings. The long thatched house fell upon the left of the highway, and in front of it a sign-post sprang into view, with a drinking-trough below. Directly opposite, the two blue roofs ranged themselves side by side, with long strips of garden and a thick privet hedge between them and the road. And behind, in the direction of the marsh, the poplars stretched in an irregular line.
Now the nearer of these blue pavilions was the home of Captain Barker, who for more than two years had not crossed its threshold. Yet he neither paused by its small blue gate nor glanced up the gravelled path. Nor, though thirsty, did he turn aside to the porch of the Fish and Anchor Inn; but kept along the privet hedge until he came to the second blue gate. Here he drew up and stood for a moment with his hand on the latch.
A trim lawn stretched before him to the door of the pavilion, and here, on a rustic seat before an equally rustic table, sat a long lean gentleman, in a suit of Lincoln green faced with scarlet, who gazed into a pewter tankard. His sword lay on the turf beside him, and a hat of soft cloth edged with feathers hung on the arm of the bench.
This long gentleman looked up as the gate clicked, stretched out his legs, rose, and disappeared within the pavilion, returning after a minute with a jug of beer and a fresh tankard.
“Paid off your crew already?”
The little hunchback took a pull, answered “No” as he set down the tankard, and looked up at the weathercock overhead.
“Wind’s in the south-east.”
The long man looked at the little one and pursed up his mouth. His face proclaimed him of a like age with Captain Barker. It did not at all match his figure, being short as a bull-dog’s; and like a bull-dog he was heavily jowled. Many weathers had tanned his complexion to a rich corn-colour. His name was Jeremy Runacles, and for two years, that had ended on this very morning, he had commanded the Trident frigate. As he climbed down her ladder into his gig he had left on the deck behind him a reputation for possessing a shorter temper than any three officers in his Majesty’s service. At present his steel-blue eyes seemed gentle enough.
“You’ve something to tell,” he said, after a minute’s silence.
The hunchback kicked at a plantain in the turf for two minutes longer, and asked—
“How’s the little maid, Jemmy?”
“Grown. She’s having her morning nap.”
“She want’s a mother.”
“She’ll have to do with a nurse.”
“You don’t want to marry again?”
“That’s a lie.”
Before Captain Runacles could resent this, the little man turned his back and took six paces to the party hedge and six paces back.
“I say, Jemmy, do you think we could fight?”
“I was thinking that. I don’t see another way out of it, though.”
He kicked the plantain out of the ground, and, looking up, said very softly—”Meg’s a widow.”
Captain Jeremy Runacles sat down on the rustic bench. A hot flush had sprung into his face and a light leapt in his eyes; but he said nothing. Captain Barker cocked his head on one side and went on—
“Yes, you lied, Jemmy. That fellow, as I guess, ran off and left her, finding that the old man had the courage to die without coming to reason. He went back to his regiment, sailed, and was drowned in a ditch. She’s back at the old house, and in want.”
“You’ve seen her?”
“Look here, Jemmy. You and I are a couple of tomfools; but we try to play fair.”
“Upon my soul, Jack,” observed Captain Jemmy, rising to his feet again, “we can’t fight. You’re too good a fellow to kill.”
“H’mph, I was thinking that.”
As if by consent, the pair began to pace up and down the turf, one on either side of the gravelled path. At the end of three minutes Captain Jack looked up.
“After all, you’ve been married once, whereas I—”
“That doesn’t count,” the other interrupted. “I married in an unguarded moment. I was huffed with Meg.”
“No, I suppose it doesn’t count.”
They resumed their walk. Captain Jemmy was the next to speak.
“It seems to me Meg must decide.”
“Yes, but we must start fair.”
“The devil! we can’t propose one in each ear. And if we race for it—”
“You must give me half a mile’s start.”
“But we can write.”
“Yes; and deliver our letters together at the door.”
“On the other hand, I’ve always heard that women look upon a written proposal of marriage as rather tame.”
“That objection would hardly apply to two in one day. And, besides, she knows about us.”
“We’ll write,” said Captain Jemmy.
He went into the pavilion to search for pens and paper, while Captain Barker stepped down to the Fish and Anchor to borrow a bottle of ink.
“There must be preliminaries,” the little man observed, returning and setting the ink down in the centre of the rustic table, on which already lay a bundle of old quills and some quarto sheets of yellow paper.
“As for instance?”
“Imprimis, a thick folio book for me to sit on. The carpenter built this table after your measure.”
“I will fetch one.”
“Also more beer.”
“I will draw some.”
“Thirdly, a time-keeper. My stomach’s empty, but it can hold out for another hour. We’ll give ourselves an hour; start together and finish together.”
Captain Runacles fished a silver whistle from his waistcoat pocket and blew on it shrilly. The blue and white door of the pavilion was opened, and a slight old man in a blue livery appeared on the step and came ambling down the path. The weight of an enormous head, on the top of which his grey wig seemed to be balanced rather than fitted, bowed him as he moved. But he drew himself up to salute the two captains.
“Glad to welcome ye, Captain John, along with master here. Hey, but you’ve aged—the pair o’ ye.”
“Simeon,” said his master, “draw us some beer. Aged, you say?”
“Aye—aged, aged: a trivial, remediless complaint, common to folk. Valiant deeds ye’ll do yet, my masters; but though I likes to be hopeful, the door’s closin’ on ye both. Ye be staid to the eye, noticeably staid. The first sign o’t, to be marked at forty or so, is when a woman’s blush pales before wine held to the light; the second, and that, too, ye’ve passed—”
“Hurry, you old fool! As it happens you’ve been proving us a pair of raw striplings.”
“Hee-hee,” tittered the old man sardonically, and catching up the tankards trotted back to the house, with his master at his heels. Captain Barker, left alone, rearranged his neckcloth, contemplated his crooked legs for a moment with some disgust, and began to trot up and down the grass-plot, whistling the while with great energy and no regard for tune.
The pair reappeared in the doorway—Captain Runacles bearing an hour-glass and a volume of “Purchas,” and Simeon the tankards, crowned with a creamy froth.
“Have you picked your quill?”
“Yes,” answered the hunchback, settling himself on top of the brown folio. “No, ’tis a split one.”
The pens were old, and had lain with the ink dry upon them ever since the outbreak of the Dutch War. The two men were half a minute in finding a couple that would write. Then Captain Runacles turned the hour-glass abruptly; and for an hour there was no sound in the pavilion garden but the scratching of quills, the murmur of pigeons on the roof, and the creaking of the gilded vane above them.
Categories: English Literature