How Mark Strong wanted to go.
“Go with me, Mark? What for? To live hard, work hard, and run the risk every day of having to die hard. Get out! You’re as bad as your mother.”
“Not very bad, is it, James, to wish to share my husband’s life and cares?”
Captain Strong put down his pipe, got up from his easy-chair, crossed to the other side of the fire, and laid his hand upon Mrs Strong’s shoulder, while she turned her pleasant sweet womanly face upward and smiled in that of the fine, manly, handsome merchant captain, tanned and reddened by many a fight with the sea.
“No, my dear,” he said softly; “but it’s a man’s duty to face danger, a woman’s to keep the nest snug for him and the bairns. Why, Mary, you don’t know what the perils of the sea are.”
Mrs Strong shook her head slowly, and that shake, as interpreted by her eyes, meant a great deal.
“Ah! you may look,” the captain said, “but you do not; and as for this cub—come here, you great, strong, impudent young ruffian!” he added; and as his son rose from his chair he took him by the shoulders, gave him a hearty shake, followed it up with a back-handed blow in the chest, and ended by gripping his right hand in a firm, manly clasp, his voice turning slightly husky as he continued:
“Mark, my lad, Heaven knows how often, when I’m far away at sea, I feel as if I’d give anything for a sight of your mother’s face, ay, and a good look at yours, you ugly young imitation! How dare you try and grow up like me!”
Mrs Strong smiled.
“But it won’t do, my lad. I’m earning the pennies in my ship, and you must go on with your studies, take care of your mother, and when I come back after my next voyage we’ll have a talk about what you’re to be. Let’s see; how old are you?”
“Sixteen, and discontented! Why, Mark, do you know that you possess what hundreds of thousands of men most envy?”
“I do, father?”
“To be sure, sir; health, strength, all your faculties, and all the world before you.”
“But I never see any of the world like you do,” said Mark dolefully.
It was a broad, honest, hearty laugh, such as a sturdy Englishman who is in the habit of using his lungs indulges in; and as Mark Strong’s brow wrinkled, and he felt irritated at being laughed at, his father thrust him back into his chair.
“I’m not laughing at you, my boy,” he said; “but at your notion—the common one, that a sailor who goes all round the world is always seeing wonderful sights.”
“Well, my dear,” said Mrs Strong, taking her son’s part, “you know you have seen strange things.”
As she spoke her eyes ran over the decorations of their handsomely-furnished room in the old-fashioned house in old-fashioned Hackney, where there were traces of the captain’s wanderings in the shape of stuffed birds of gorgeous plumage, shells of iridescent tints, masses of well-bleached corals, spears and carven clubs from New Zealand, feather ornaments from Polynesia, boomerangs and nulla-nullas from Australia, ostrich eggs from the Cape, ivory carvings from China, a hideous suit of black iron armour from Japan, and carpets and rugs from India and Persia to make snug the floor.
“Strange things, wife! Well, of course I have a few. A man can’t be at sea thirty years without seeing something; but, generally speaking, a sailor’s life is one of terrible monotony. He is a seaman, and he sees the sea day after day—day after day; rough seas and smooth seas, stormy seas and sunny seas; and enough to do to keep his ship afloat and away from rocks and lee shores. Here, what are you opening your eyes and mouth for in that way, Mark? Do you expect I’m going to tell you about the sea-serpent?”
“No, father,” said the lad laughing. “It was because what you said was so interesting.”
“Interesting! Nonsense! A sailor’s is a wearisome life, full of dangers.”
“But you see strange countries, father, and all their wonders.”
“No, I do not, boy,” said the captain half angrily, “A sailor sees nothing but his ship, and she’s all anxiety to him from the time he goes aboard till he comes back. We see strange ports, and precious little in them. Why, Mark, if you were in some places on the other side of the world, you’d find everything so English that you would hardly believe you had left home. No, no, my lad. You be content to get on well with your studies, and some day we’ll make a doctor or a lawyer of you. Soldier, if you like, but not a sailor.”
“It’s my turn to speak now,” said Mrs Strong, smiling lovingly at her frank, manly-looking son. “No soldiering.”
“I don’t want to be a soldier, mother,” said Mark gloomily. “I want to travel; and as I have kept to my books as father wished during his last two voyages, and won my certificates, he might give me the prize I worked for.”
“Why, you ungrateful young dog,” cried the captain, “haven’t I given you a first-class watch?”
“Yes, father; but that isn’t the prize I want. I say: do take me with you.”
“Take you with me!” cried the captain with an impatient snort such as a sea-horse might give. “Here, mother, what have you been doing with this boy?”
“Doing everything I could to set him against the sea, my dear,” said Mrs Strong sadly.
“And a nice mess you have made of it,” growled the captain. “Pass my tobacco. Well, Mark, my lad; I want my spell ashore to be happy and restful, and when there’s a rock ahead I must steer clear of it at once; so here goes, my lad, I may as well say it and have done with it. I know so much of the sea that I shall never consent to your being a sailor. Your mother is with me there. Eh, my dear?”
“Yes, James, thoroughly,” said Mrs Strong.
“Now, my lad, you’ve got to make the best of it.”
“But if you would take me for one voyage only, father, I wouldn’t ask you to take me again.”
“Won’t trust you,” said the captain. “Hallo, Bruff!” he continued, patting the rough head of a great retriever dog which had just come slouching into the room, carrying the said rough head hanging down as if it were too heavy for its body, an idea endorsed by its act of laying it upon the captain’s knee. “Is it you who teaches your young master to be so obstinate?”
The dog uttered a low growl as if of protest.
“Perhaps you’d like me to take you for a voyage, old chap,” continued the captain, pausing in his smoking to wipe the corners of the dog’s eyes with its ears. “You’d look well sea-sick in a corner of the deck, or swung in a hammock.”
Bruff showed the whites of his expressive eyes and uttered a dismal howl.
“Don’t be afraid, old fellow,” said the captain. “I sha’n’t take you, nor your master neither, so you may both make the best of it.”
“Don’t say that, father,” said Mark earnestly. “Take me this once. I do so want to see China!”
“Here, mother,” said the captain laughing; “take Mark up stairs and show him your best tea-service, the one I brought home last year. Like to see Japan, too, my lad?”
Mark frowned and bent his head over his book, while Mrs Strong shook her head at her husband.
The captain rose once more, and laid his hand upon his son’s shoulder.
“Come, come, my lad, don’t fret over it,” he said; “you have done well, and I should like to give you a treat, but I can’t take you to Hong-Kong for many reasons. Your mother would not like it, I shouldn’t like it, and it would do you no good.”
“But, father—” began Mark.
“Hear me out, my lad,” said the captain gravely. “I say I want to give you a treat, so I tell you what I will do. You and your mother shall come aboard as we’re warping out of the dock, or at Gravesend if you like, and I’ll take you down Channel with me. I’ve got to put in at Plymouth, and I’ll drop you there, or at Penzance, whichever you like, and then you can come back to London by rail. Hallo, who’s that?”
There was a ring at the old iron gate, and Mark rose and walked to the window.
“A sailor, father.”
“Sailor!” said the captain, rising. “Oh, it’s Billy Widgeon! Tell the girl to show him in.”
Mark went out to speak to the servant, and the next minute the big front door-mat was having a hard time as the sailor stood rubbing away at his perfectly clean boots, and breathing hard with the exertion, staring furtively at Mark Strong the while.
Categories: English Literature