Chapter I

Half-mast High

“Poor Sam! well, we must all slip our cable some day or another, I s’pose. But it’s hard just when he was a-looking for’rard to settling down on shore as he should be hurried up aloft. Howsumever, it’s no use worrying over what can’t be mended; the best thing as we can do is to look after them as he’s left and was a-working for.”

And Jack Grigsby, river pilot, and as honest and manly a soul as ever breathed, passed the back of his freckled hand across his eyes, and took a huge gulp of the stiff tumbler of rum and water which the mate of the Good Fortune had mixed for him.

The Good Fortune, a stout barque of some 800 tons burthen, had that morning come into the London Docks, her flag half-mast high​—​the melancholy sign which denotes the presence of death on board ship.

“It’s a rum thing, Mr. Lampard,” said Mr. Grigsby reflectively to the mate, “it’s a rum thing as I should have had a presentimerant of poor Sam’s death. I ain’t a believer in amens”​—​Jack Grigsby was by no means irreligious, so it is to be presumed he meant “omens”​—​“but when I broke my old meerschaum last Thursday as I’ve had twenty years or more, I says to my Jennie, If something don’t happen within a week my name ain’t what it is, I says. And dreckly I comes aboard the Fortun’ at Gravesend and heerd as Sam was near his last port, I says, ‘That’s it.’”

“Wa-al, sir,” said the mate in his American twang, ejecting from his cheek a quid of long service into the little stove which warmed the captain’s cabin, where this conversation was taking place, “we did all we could, but Cap’en Somerset was all’ays as hard as grit. I wanted him to go ashore at Falmouth seeing as he was so queer; but no, he said as he’d stick to his ship till the last, which he did, and that’s a fact, sir.”

“Ah!” rejoined Mr. Grigsby, “a good fellow was Sam, but cranky. Got a way of his own, as I couldn’t all’ays foller. That lump o’ iron over yonder’s a case in p’int. What there is in a blessed cannon-shot to be so mighty keerful of it, I can’t make out. Says he, a-gasping out his words, and I shall never forget ’em, ‘Jack,’ he says, ‘that’s for the boy. You’ll see as he has it, won’t you?’ And with that he clutches at my ’and, Mr. Lampard, with fingers as were as cold as ice​—​I can a’most feel ’em now​—​and I swore to him as I’d look arter it, and so I will, though it’s only a bit o’ senseless iron as ain’t good for nothing.”

The object which had been committed to Jack Grigsby’s care, and at which he now pointed, was a cannon-ball. There it lay, black, round, and smooth, in a corner of the cabin; and however useful, or dangerous, it was capable of proving when devoted to its proper purpose and placed inside a cannon, it certainly in its present condition bore out the pilot’s words of being “good for nothing.”

The mate shrugged his shoulders in answer to Mr. Grigsby, as much as to say that he thought him a fool for his pains, and taking out his knife and a cake of tobacco, began to cut a fresh plug.

“The youngster’ll want a pair of stout arms to play at catch-ball with that, I guess,” said Lampard when he had replenished his cheek. “Where is the boy?”

“Why, that’s the puzzle!” returned Mr. Grigsby, rubbing his chin reflectively. “You see Sam’s been away eight years, and, as far as I can make out from what he said, wasn’t very lucky. Couldn’t get a cargo home, and had to go trading from port to port, and at last some two years ago he leaves his ship and makes for the Californian diggings.”

“That’s so,” put in the mate. “I joined the ship at ’Frisco, and I was a bit taken aback when I saw as the Cap’en was in command, ’cause I’d met him up at the gold-fields.”

“Well, when Sam went away, the boy was about two year old. Mother was dead, d’ye see, and so Sam left the child in charge of some one, and blest if that ain’t all I know.”

“’Tain’t much,” remarked the mate carelessly.

“No; if poor Sam had only lasted another five minutes he’d ha’ told me all about the lad; but I s’pose it wasn’t to be, and so I shall rout it out myself as best I may. But find Sam’s boy I will.”

Jack Grigsby got up from his seat by the fire​—​for it was a cold winter’s day​—​stamped his feet once or twice and walked up to the cannon-ball, which he took from the floor with both hands and poised for a minute or so.

“It’s a goodish weight,” said he; “fourteen or fifteen pounds I should say.”

“Not an ounce less, I reckon,” replied the mate. “You ain’t going to take it away this afternoon, air you?”

“I am so,” observed Mr. Grigsby, with determination. “That’ll be safe and sound in Gibraltar Cottage, Burford Street, Commercial Road, to-night, come what may.”

“It won’t give you much trouble to look after it, I guess,” rejoined Lampard with a half laugh. “Why, they wouldn’t give you anything for it at a rag shop.”

“No matter; I promised Sam I’d take care of it, and no man can say as Jack Grigsby ever broke a promise. Here’s my carpet-bag; it’ll just go in. Pretty good weight; but I’ll have a cab when I get into St. George’s Street.”

And the odd bequest of the poor skipper of the Good Fortune having been encased in Jack Grigsby’s faded and weather-worn carpet-bag, which had travelled with him up and down the river between Gravesend and London any number of times these ten years, the pilot dragged his burden up the cabin stairs and prepared to take his departure.

It was four o’clock in the afternoon, and the dock bell was ringing as a signal for the labourers to leave off their work of loading and unloading cargoes. The day had been dark and dreary, and as the evening approached a slight fog came stealing up from the river. Still, it was not so misty but that the whole of the deck of the Good Fortune could be seen, and it was only when you looked towards the forest of masts that you became conscious of the cloud of vapour which threatened to become denser as the night wore on.

On the deck near the cook-house one of the crew was lounging. The others had been paid off, and had left for shore​—​most of them to spend in about a week what it had taken them twelve to earn. This man was not at all like what most people imagine the British sailor to be. He did not wear a straw hat, nor white trousers, nor even a blue jacket with brass buttons. A blue blouse, with short, wide, hanging sleeves, covered his body, while his legs were encased in loose baggy trousers of the same material​—​a stout coarse cotton​—​as the blouse. Nor was his face any more like the face of a Jack Tar than his dress. A yellow complexion, high cheek bones, and almond-shaped eyes sloping obliquely towards the nose, marked him as belonging to the Mongolian race, while, if any doubt as to his nationality was left, that was effectually settled by his coal-black hair dragged off the forehead and plaited into the characteristic pigtail of the Chinaman.

“I tell you what, Mr. Lampard,” said Jack Grigsby, as he put his carpet-bag down on the deck to rest a moment, “I don’t think much of your crew. That John Chineyman is bad enough, but some of the other fellows I wouldn’t take a week’s voyage with.”

“Wa-al,” drawled the mate, “we had a job to get a crew at all at ’Frisco. There was a rush to the gold-fields, and we had to take what we could get, and that’s a fact. We’re not so mighty particular about our company in our country as you are in yours.”

“So it seems. And that’s the advantage we have over you. We’re not obliged to carry revolvers in our pockets to shoot down anybody we see following us,” said Jack with a chuckle.

“Wa-al, you’ve got some darned ugly customers in your England too, I guess,” returned Mr. Lampard, a disagreeable look coming into his eyes.

“Maybe,” said the bluff pilot cheerily. “Well, I’ll get on with my load, so I’ll say good-night.”

“Good-night,” returned the mate.

Jack Grigsby walked with his heavy carpet-bag down the gangway leading to the shore, for the Good Fortune had been brought up alongside the dock quay and the gangway had been laid down for the convenience of unloading. Crowds of dock labourers were hurrying towards the gates, and the quays presented a busy scene. The pilot threaded his way between huge casks, stacks of boxes, and mountains of bags and sacks, stepped over ropes and chains, and gradually neared the gates. His pace was necessarily not a very rapid one, and although he was a big, burly, strong man in spite of his sixty years, he found the bag increased in weight as he proceeded.

At the gates the men were being searched, but the scrutiny was not a very severe one, the dock official simply passing his hand over the region of the pockets, and if there was any protuberance making the man show what was the cause. Simple as the process is, it is as a rule sufficient, and rarely does a workman succeed in smuggling out of the docks any tobacco, cigars, or spirits.

The official, of course, knew Jack Grigsby​—​who at the London Docks did not?​—​and he nodded good-humouredly as the pilot came up.

“Caught you this time, Mr. Grigsby, have I?” said the man jokingly. “I suppose you thought I shouldn’t notice your bag.”

“That’s it, Joe,” returned Jack. “You’ve seen it so often it’s most part of me, eh?”

“What’s inside? Old Jamaica?”

“Feel the weight and then tell me.”

The man incautiously took the bag between his finger and thumb, and not suspecting how heavy it was, found he could not hold it. He made an effort to recover his grasp but it was of no use; down came the bag with a crash and up jumped the official some six inches into the air with an agonized expression on his face. The bag with its cannon-ball had fallen on to his toe.

“You’ve done a pretty thing,” remarked Mr. Grigsby in pretended indignation. “Smashed a bottle of as fine rum as ever was smuggled.”

“Glad of it. It’s nearly smashed my toe, I know that,” groaned the injured Joe.

It was his duty, of course, to open the bag and examine its contents, and this, grumbling the while at the trick which had been played him, he proceeded to do.

“Why, what on earth have you got here?” he exclaimed, starting when his hand came in contact with the cold iron.

“Only a cannon-ball. There’s no duty on it, Joe, my lad. You can let it pass,” chuckled the pilot.

The official shut to the bag with a loud snap and handed it back to its owner, this time taking the precaution to lift it with both hands.

“You don’t catch me a second time like this, Mr. Grigsby.”

“All right, Joe; but don’t you take me for a smuggler again, that’s all.”

And bidding the official a cheery “good-night” Mr. Grigsby passed through the gates into Old Gravel Lane, and so up this dirty narrow outlet, now quite inclosed on one side by the London Docks, into the outer world of Shadwell.

He was glad when he got into St. George’s Street, which is the main artery of this waterside neighbourhood, leading in the west to the Tower of London, in the east to High Street, Shadwell, and Limehouse. Not many years ago St. George’s Street used to be called in the maps of London “Ratcliff Highway,” and indeed is better known to the inhabitants to-day under that name; but as Ratcliff Highway was once associated with robbery and even murder, it was thought that its evil reputation would be forgotten when it was changed into St. George’s Street. To a certain extent this is true. Ratcliff Highway, though not the most respectable and orderly thoroughfare in the world, is not nearly so bad as it formerly was.

But Jack Grigsby was not concerned with either the past or present aspect of Ratcliff Highway. A cab was at that moment uppermost in his thoughts. He looked to the right and he looked to the left but no cab could be seen, and after waiting two or three minutes he determined to walk to his house, the distance to which was not more than a mile.

Now between St. George’s Street and the Commercial Road are a number of narrow, dirty streets. The inhabitants are like the houses, dingy and shabby in appearance, and the whole appearance of the district is one of poverty.

Along one of the dirtiest and most narrow of these streets Jack Grigsby trudged, and behind him walked or rather slunk a boy who for grime on his face and hands and tatters in his clothes could not easily be matched even in the great city of London, where there are so many boys grimy and tattered. This street arab had no shoes or stockings on his feet, a fragment of a shirt covered his back, chest, and one shoulder, leaving the other exposed, while a huge pair of ragged corduroy trousers, held up by a piece of string in place of a brace, came almost as high as his armpits. His hair was as much like a mop as it was possible for hair to be, and from between its uncombed locks, which straggled over his forehead, peered a pair of bright eyes, which, even by the glimmer of a street lamp feebly making its way through the fog, could be seen were full of intelligence.

This boy had followed the pilot for some few yards, and when the latter stopped a moment to rest himself he sidled up to the old man.

“Buy a box o’ lights, sir?” said he.

“Lights, you young shaver? Will your lights show me the way through the fog, eh?”

“In course they will, sir, if you buys enough on ’em,” returned the boy with a laugh that showed two rows of even white teeth.

Jack Grigsby looked at the little fellow and shook his head.

“Ah, you’re a sharp ’un, I can see. But I don’t want any lights for all that.”

“Shall I carry your bag for you, sir, then?”

The pilot stared. The boy was miserably thin, and scarcely more than ten years old, and the idea of his carrying a weight of fifteen pounds or so was absurd.

You carry it, you sparrow​—​why, you couldn’t even lift it.”

“Couldn’t I?” returned the boy scornfully. “I’m stronger than you thinks, mister.” And he seized hold of the handle of the bag and tried valiantly to get it on his shoulder; but Jack Grigsby was right, he could scarcely raise it from the ground.

“That’s a jolly weight, and no mistake,” said the arab ruefully. “I thought as I could do it too. It’s hard, ain’t it, when you wants to earn a copper.”

“Well, it isn’t your fault, my lad. You shall have your copper all the same.”

The boy’s eyes glistened as the good-natured pilot dropped a penny into his hands, and with a “Thank ye, sir,” he flitted away in the contrary direction from that in which Jack Grigsby was going.

“That was a bit o’ luck, blest if it warn’t,” chuckled the young arab, clutching the penny tight in his hand. “And me so awful peckish too. What’ll I buy with it? Eel-pie or a buster?”

This was a very important question for our young friend to decide. There was a cavity of considerable size inside his small body which required filling, and nothing for the price of a penny could do it so well as a “buster,” in other words a French roll. But rolls are dry, cheerless eating on a cold, foggy night, and he couldn’t resist the vision of a hot, rich, savoury eel-pie.

“I could eat a dozen on ’em,” he muttered, the water coming into his mouth at the thought.

The eel-pie had it, and off he darted at a smart pace to indulge in the luxury; and so absorbed was he in the anticipation of his supper that he ran full tilt into the waistcoat of some one who was coming swiftly the other way.

“Thunder and lightning! Pork and apple sass!” ejaculated the stranger on feeling as though a cannon-ball had caught him amidships.

The boy rubbed his head, which had struck against something hard in one of the pockets of the man’s pea-jacket, but said nothing. He was, in fact, too bewildered by the shock.

He was about to hurry away when the man caught hold of him roughly. “Hullo, younker, not so fast. I want to speak to you, I guess. Look here, have you seen anybody go down this street with a carpet-bag in his hand?”

“What, an old gent, d’ye mean, guv’nor?”

“Aye, aye. How long ago was it? You tell me the straight truth and you bet I’ll​—​I’ll give you sixpence.”

The boy’s eyes sparkled, sixpence to him represented a mine of wealth.

“All right, mister. You go down the street, and make haste and you’ll catch him. It ain’t more’n a minute since I see him.”

No sooner had he said the words than the man, a long, lanky fellow, darted off followed by a companion whom the boy had not before noticed, but who was plain enough now to be seen and also to be remembered, for he was a Chinaman, pigtail and all complete.

Perhaps the arab would have remarked him still more had not the whole of his faculties been absorbed by the fact that the tall man had run away without giving him the sixpence he had promised. Determined not to be done out of his rightful earnings he first shouted, and no notice being taken, commenced also to run. But the fog had become so thick he found it no easy matter to see more than two or three yards before him, and after vainly striving to discover the two men gave up the search in despair.

Now the boy, as I have said, had no shoes and stockings on his feet, and his steps consequently made no noise. It was therefore not surprising that he should suddenly come upon the very people whom he was seeking, without himself being observed. But strange to say, when he made this discovery he said not a word, and you will presently see the reason.

From the hurry the tall man was in, one would naturally suppose he would make all possible haste to overtake the person he wanted. The boy, therefore, was greatly surprised to see him creeping cautiously close to the houses, followed at a short distance by the pig-tailed Chinaman.

To a boy accustomed to good clothes, to good dinners and to a comfortable home, this cautious method of walking might not have suggested anything in particular; but to our ragged young friend, who had been accustomed to make his home in the streets, and those streets the streets about Ratcliff Highway, it meant a great deal.

“My eye,” muttered the boy, “if they ain’t after that old gent as gave me the copper! I know’d the tall chap warn’t no good or he wouldn’t ha’ cheated me. And the sneaking Chaneyman too. I’ll spoil their game if I can, that I will.”