Chapter II

A Night Attack

It was the easiest thing in the world for the lad to creep behind the two men unobserved. He was so thin and shadowy, so used to crouching in corners and squeezing into nooks, that really one would say he was able to reduce himself to less than his proper stature.

And so the crouching figures in front never suspected that within a little more than a yard, and treading almost upon their very footsteps, was a little sharp-eyed boy, with all his faculties on the alert and ready for action.

By-and-by the three neared Jack Grigsby, who with the weight in the bag was walking slowly. By the dim yellow light of a gas lamp they could see him swaying to and fro in his sailor fashion, and when he had passed the lamp he put the bag down on the pavement preparatory to changing it into the other hand. Now was the time for the attack. Turning round, the tall man made a signal to the Chinese, who came to a dead stop immediately in front of the lamp-post. His companion then darted swiftly into the road and disappeared. To the boy’s active mind the proceedings were intelligible enough. Evidently the assault was to be made in the front and the rear at the same time.

Now the lad standing immediately behind the Chinese, with only the lamp-post between them, could not help seeing the long, black, shining, snake-like pigtail. Whipping off his braces, which you will remember were nothing but string, he seized the pigtail gently, and bound it tightly to the lamp-post. Scarcely had he finished than he heard a low whistle. The Chinese bent his knees slightly, lowered his head, and gathered all his strength for a terrific leap upon the unconscious pilot, who at that moment was stooping to pick up the bag. A second of time, which to the boy appeared like an hour, and then followed a shrill cry of agony from the Chinaman, who had the double sensation firstly of having all the hairs of his head pulled out by the roots, and secondly of having them knocked in again by the lamp-post, against which he rebounded with tremendous force.

The voice of a Chinese is totally unlike that of an Englishman. It is a thin, piping shriek, and coming so unexpectedly, it startled Jack Grigsby to such an extent that the bag dropped from his hand and fell with a loud thud on the pavement. Almost at the same time a tall lanky form rushing from the road stumbled over it and went sprawling through the air, a murky vision of arms and legs.

Jack Grigsby had had too many ups and downs in the world to be taken easily by surprise. He could not understand what it all meant, but he had a suspicion that robbery was at the bottom of the business. However, the only thing certain was that somebody was lying on the ground, and that that somebody was certainly stunned, for he was lying quite still and motionless.

“This is a mighty queer business,” growled the pilot, bending over the prostrate figure, “what cheer, mate? Let’s look at your figure-head?”

And he laid hold of the man to lift him from the ground, when the latter suddenly rolled out of the pilot’s grasp, and springing to his feet bounded out of sight.

“Well​—​I’m blest!” was the only observation Mr. Grigsby felt equal to. He stood still for a moment vainly staring at the fog, scratched his head slowly, and gave a long whistle.

“There was some one else,” he muttered half aloud. “That warn’t a man’s voice as I heard a-screaming behind me.”

But not a soul could he see save the little London arab, who came sidling up with a triumphant look on his sharp face.

“Hallo! you young shaver; was it you making that hullaballoo just now?”

“No, that it wasn’t. He’s got away, he has. Took out his knife and cut a bit off his tail!” and the boy’s eyes fairly danced with glee.

Jack Grigsby was thoroughly mystified. Cut off a bit of his tail?​—​whose tail?​—​what tail?

“Now don’t you come any Ratcliff Highway tricks over me,” returned the old man, putting on as severe a look as his round jolly face was capable of, “because I’m none of your green hands.”

“I havn’t got no tricks, mister. It’s all true every word of it.”

And with a good deal of expressive action, and with great flow of speech, the boy told how he had seen the men creeping along the street, how he had followed them, and how he had secured the Chinaman, producing triumphantly the extreme end of the pigtail​—​a knot of hair tied with a ribbon​—​as a proof.

It was a very curious affair, and Mr. Grigsby could make nothing of it. He cross-questioned the boy, but the latter stuck to his story, and described the persons of Hosea Lampard and Ah Ling Foo so accurately that the pilot could no longer doubt the truth of what he said.

“What’s your name, boy?” said he after a pause, during which he had been staring intently into the lad’s face.

“Ned, sir.”

“Ned what?”

“Ned nothing, sir. Never been called anything else as I knows.”

“Well, Ned Nothing, where d’ye live?”

“Anywhere, sir. I ain’t pertikler. Mostly in the streets in the day, and when the night comes I creeps where I can. I know a good place down a stable-yard where the man lets me get in a cart, and it’s regilar snug too if there’s a bit o’ straw.”

Jack Grigsby’s honest heart swelled within him. It seemed monstrous that in London, the richest city in the world, a poor little mortal like this boy should be allowed to exist in such a state of utter misery and desolation.

“I can’t make it out, that I can’t,” he muttered to himself. “There’s something wrong somewhere, blest if there isn’t. This lad’s a sharp chap, and if what he says is true, he’s done me a sarvice as it oughtn’t to be in me to forget. Look here, Ned Nothing,” said he aloud, “would you like to sleep in a bed?”

“What! a real bed with real blankets and pillers?”

“Aye.”

“Shouldn’t I just!”

“Then you shall. Here, come along with me.”

And once more that troublesome bag was lifted, and between them​—​Jack Grigsby laying hold of one handle and Ned the other​—​was carried into the Commercial Road, and so into Burford Street, where was the pilot’s house.

A remarkable house it was too. Burford Street is nearly half a mile long, as straight as a needle, and without a turning to the right or the left from one end to the other. All the houses are built on the same pattern, and so nearly alike that with the exception of Mr. Grigsby’s there is not a pin to choose between any of them.

But what made the pilot’s house so remarkable was not its architecture, for in that respect it was like all the rest, but its adornments, all of which were Jack’s own designing, and very proud he was of them. For instance, being clever with his hands, as most sailors are, he had built up an elaborate structure of grotto-work in the little garden​—​garden? well, it was scarcely big enough to be called a yard, say 4 feet by about 10​—​in front of the house, in which flints, brickbats, and oyster-shells and cement were cunningly intermingled, and where in the summer time flowers were artfully disposed. Then instead of flagstones in front of the door he had put down a pavement of his own invention, which really looked very well, while you would never have guessed that the round tile-like stoneware of which it was made was nothing more nor less than the bottoms of ginger-beer bottles. As for the door itself and the railings, they were literally as fresh as paint, for they were both continually receiving new coats. The brass knocker, the brass doorknob, and even the very keyhole always shone as brilliantly as they could be made to do by brick-dust and wash-leather, while the venetian blinds in the windows were of so bright a green that they almost made you wink as you looked at them. Jack Grigsby had bought his house with the savings of many years, and was never tired of beautifying it.

“Here we are, Ned,” he remarked as he pushed open the iron gate, “and precious glad I am to be home again, I can tell you.”

The gate as it swung creaked on its hinges, and the sound must have been heard inside the house, for scarcely had Mr. Grigsby knocked before the door was opened, and what seemed to Ned like one of the fairies in a pantomime​—​which he had once seen at the Pavilion Theatre in the Whitechapel Road, having scraped up threepence, the price of admission to the gallery​—​bounded out, and putting her arms round Jack Grigsby’s neck, kissed him first on one cheek, and then on the other.

“Come in, you dear!” exclaimed the fairy in the brightest and prettiest of voices. “Grandmother said you were lost in the fog, but I said I was sure you’d find your way home, and I was right, you see.”

“As you always are, puss,” returned Jack Grigsby, his eyes beaming with pride.

“Bring the bag in here, little boy,” said she patronizingly to Ned​—​she was about the same age and scarcely so tall.

“Stay, Nellie, my girl. He can’t lift it by himself. We’ll bring it in together.”

And so they did, Jack Grigsby shutting the door behind him.

“Why, whatever have you got inside, grandfather? Is it a present for me?” said the girl, who, now that she was standing in the light, Ned could see was a golden-haired blue-eyed little maiden, with a pretty colour on her cheeks and merry smile on her red lips.

“No, Nell, ’tisn’t for you.”

“Then it is a present for some one. Oh, do let me look!”

“Aye, aye, you shall look all in good time.”

Meanwhile the bag had been brought into the parlour, where was sitting close by the fire in a large leathern-covered chair an old lady with snowy white hair smoothed neatly over her placid forehead. Her head was raised in a curiously inquiring manner, and there was a singular look in her eyes, a look like which Ned had never seen in anybody else’s.

Mr. Grigsby went directly up to the old lady and kissed her.

“Well, old woman,” said he cheerily, “how goes it?”

“You’re late, John, arn’t you? The ship came into dock this morning, didn’t it?”

“Aye, aye​—​I’ve a long yarn to spin to you, missis. You remember Sam Somerset, don’t you? Well​—​but I’ll tell you all when we’ve had some tea. Nell, my girl, what about the kettle?”

All this time Ned stood wonderingly in the comfortable little room waiting for further orders. It was enough pleasure for him to watch the airy form of Nellie flitting about the old pilot, taking off his comforter, hanging up his cap, and helping him to remove his great-coat. How he wished he had a great-coat that so pretty a little maid might do the same office for him! All at once his reverie was disturbed by the old woman saying sharply:

“John, there is a stranger in the room. Who is it?”

“A boy, my dear, a boy​—​he’s part of my story. If it hadn’t been for the youngster I mightn’t ha’ been here to-night. Ned, my lad, come here.”

Which Ned did, and standing by the old lady the latter passed her hand lightly over his features, and then across his chest and back.

“Why, John, the boy’s scarcely any clothes on.”

“That’s a fact. We’ll have to get some slops for him and make him decent.”

“Nellie,” said again Mrs. Grigsby, “tell me what he is like.”

“Well,” thought Ned, “you’re the funniest old woman I know. Can’t you see for yourself what I’m like.”

He looked up in Mrs. Grigsby’s face, and a curious feeling came over him. He could not tell why, for her eyes seemed to be as good as yours or mine; but it suddenly occurred to him what was the matter with her. She was blind.

And so the little girl came and stood by the old lady’s knee and inspected Ned with a grave and business-like air.

“He’s a nice little boy, grandmother, but his face is very dirty, and his hair hasn’t been brushed, oh, for ever so long​—​quite a week, I daresay. He’s only got a shirt on and a pair of trousers, and oh, granny​—​no shoes and stockings. Mayn’t he have a pair of mine?”

“We’ll look after that, Nell. Now, Ned Nothing, you come in the kitchen and have a good wash before we talk about anything else.”

Accordingly Ned followed the pilot out into quite a model kitchen, where everything that was of metal, the dish-covers, the copper kettle, the teapot, the coffee-pot, and I don’t know what besides, was perfectly dazzling in its brightness. Busily engaged in preparing tea was an apple-cheeked girl, who certainly looked astonished when the lad followed Mr. Grigsby, and stood there in what she afterwards described as a “mash of rags,” half afraid to tread upon the bright oilcloth.

“Give him a basin​—​a good big one, Hannah, plenty of warm water and soap, and a jack-towel,” said Mr. Grigsby; “and you, Ned Nothing, scrub away. D’ye hear?”

And leaving Ned to his task the pilot returned to the parlour, where his blind wife and his granddaughter were busily talking over Ned’s appearance, and what grandfather was going to do with him.

“We must see if we can’t find room for the lad, Jennie, and make him useful,” said Jack. “He hain’t got ne’er a one to look arter him, nor anything like a home. Been sleeping in the streets. Think o’ that, Nell.”

“Poor boy,” said Nell sympathizingly.

“My dear John, he isn’t a thief, is he?” said Mrs. Grigsby, dropping her voice.

“Not he,” replied her husband stoutly. “His face is enough for me. But that ain’t all. Just give me a cup o’ tea to wash the fog out of my throat, and I’ll tell you a little story.”

Upon which Nellie seized the homely brown earthenware teapot, having first daintily put a lump of sugar and some milk into a real china cup of a rare old pattern, and poured out a cup of tea, the old man looking on the while with beaming eyes.

When he had refreshed himself Mr. Grigsby told with much detail and appropriate action the whole story of his adventures from the time he first went on board the Good Fortune, and heard of the death of Captain Somerset, who had been ailing all the voyage and had been taken seriously ill when in the Bay of Biscay, down to the attempted assault on his way home.

“I never heard of such a thing!” exclaimed Mrs. Grigsby, lifting up her hands in wonderment. “I should certainly go to the police and let them take it up.”

“I don’t know,” returned the pilot doubtfully. “You see they didn’t actshally ’sault me, though it was mighty near. And then there’s only the boy’s word as to their a-follerin’ me, not but what he spoke the truth right enough. But I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll go down to the Fortun’ and tackle that long-legged, lantern-jawed Yankee, and if I don’t bring him to book​—​”

“No you won’t, John,” put in the blind woman. “Better let it alone. If you go to the ship I know what will happen. You’ll get out of temper, there’ll be a quarrel, and you know very well those forriners think nothing of taking out their knives and​—​”

“Oh, grandfather, you mustn’t go,” interrupted Nellie, with her blue eyes full of fright and her hands clasped.

As a rule Jack Grigsby did exactly as his wife told him. He had a kind of belief that one sense being taken from her the others were thereby made more acute, and he really looked upon her as a kind of oracle. But in this case he felt that the rascals who wanted to rob him ought to be punished, and it was only after a good deal of argument that he allowed himself to be persuaded that the best course would be to take no notice.

“All right, my dear; then if you wish it I’ll let the lubbers go scot free, though if ever I meet with that yellow-faced Chinaman or that lanky New Yorker I’ll​—​”

But what Mr. Grigsby would have done he did not say, for just then came a knock at the door and a request from Hannah, the maid of all work, that “Master would tell her what was to be done with that boy.”

“I’ll come and have a look at him,” said the pilot.

He found Ned standing near the fire with his face all in a glow from the scrubbing he had given it, and his hair brushed to as smooth a condition as its length and tangled condition would permit.

“Ah! that’s more like. Cleanliness is next door to godliness, Ned, my lad. Remember that. But you can’t sit down to tea in those rags. Get down my short pea-jacket, Ann, and we’ll do a bit of tailoring.”

Accordingly the pea-jacket was tried on, and after about half a yard had been taken in at the back and the sleeves turned up six inches or so, it made a fairly presentable figure seen from the front, though the back view must have been rather comical, at least judging from Hannah’s giggles as she watched the two go into the parlour.

“Eatin’ first, talkin’ afterwards, Ned. Take in cargo, mate, but take care you don’t overload the ship.”

Ned did not need a second bidding. To his wondering eyes heaven seemed presented to him in the bread and butter, the muffins, the shrimps, and the slices of ham with which the table was loaded. He strictly obeyed the words of the “captain,” as he called Jack Grigsby, and for fifteen minutes had no other occupation for his mouth than eating and drinking.

To the little girl it was great fun to see the ravenous boy devour the food. At the same time she felt sorry, because to be so hungry he must, she thought, have been half starved before.

At last Ned was obliged to own himself conquered. He had maintained the fight valiantly, but at the end of his sixth slice of bread and butter, his fourth muffin, to say nothing of shrimps and ham, he gave in and said he could eat no more.

“Well, you ain’t done bad,” pronounced Mr. Grigsby; “and now we’ll see about them togs.”

A message to the nearest clothier’s brought several suits, and under the inspecting eye of the pilot Ned soon found something which fitted him. It was really wonderful to see what a change decent clothes made in the boy, and Ned seemed conscious of it too, for, as Jack Grigsby afterwards said, he strutted about as vain as a peacock.

That night, after Nellie had gone to bed, and Ned also (the latter having a bed made up for him on the floor of a kind of lumber room), Jack Grigsby and his “missus,” as he called her, had a serious talk about the trust which Captain Somerset had imposed upon him, and it was agreed between the two that he should do his best to carry it out, commencing his search by a journey to Lincoln, where the captain’s only sister lived.

“Well, there’s his legacy,” said Jack, pointing with his pipe stem to the cannon-ball, which had been removed from the bag to satisfy Nellie’s curiosity and placed upon the sideboard. “Not that it’s worth much. But I s’pose there’s something due from the owners of the ship, and that ought to go to his boy, if we can find him.”

“And if anybody can do it, it’s you, John; for when you take a thing in your head you’re the most obstinate man in the world,” said the old lady with a kindly smile.

“Then we’re well matched, Jennie, for you’re the most obstinate woman,” chuckled Jack. “But, my dear,” he continued in a more serious tone, “what shall we do about this young Ned Nothing?”

“Is that his name?”

“Well, not exactly,” said the old man, rubbing his nose reflectively. “His name’s Ned and nothing else, and that’s why I calls him Ned Nothing. But what shall we do with him?” he repeated.

“Do you wish that he should live with us, John?”

“Well, I feels a liking for the lad, o’ course. The poor little chap’s so lonely like; it seems a thundering shame as he should go to the bad just for want of a helping hand, don’t it, Jennie? And so sharp and clever as he is too.”

“Yes,” returned the old woman emphatically. “It would not be a Christian act to turn him adrift when it’s in our power to save him.”

“It’s like you to say that, missus​—​not but what I thought you would,” said Jack, with his eyes beaming.

And so it was settled that Ned should remain.