Chapter IV

In Search of the Skipper’s Son

Time went on, and owing to various delays very little progress was made in tracing out Captain Somerset’s lost son. First of all Jack Grigsby met with an accident on board a ship he was piloting down to Gravesend. A block, which you know is the nautical term for a pulley, owing to a rope suddenly breaking, fell upon his foot, and he was obliged to stop at home for quite a month. He was obliged, therefore, to put off his visit to Lincoln in search of Sam Somerset’s sister, and so what with one thing and another, he did not start upon the expedition he had promised himself until nearly two months after Ned had been at school.

But now he had made up his mind that the task should be set about seriously. Christmas had come and gone; his foot was nearly well, and he was able to walk without leaning so heavily on his stick.

“If you get one or two things ready for me, old woman,” said he, “I think I’ll start next week. I may have to stay a day or two, so don’t be surprised if you has a line by post from me instead of myself coming in at that there door.”

“Do you know, John,” said the blind woman thoughtfully, “I don’t think you’ll get much good out of this journey. I remember Sam’s sister well​—​a very stern, hard woman she was. They never got on well together​—​always daggers drawn​—​and I fancy Sam wouldn’t ask her advice about his boy and tell her anything of his affairs.”

“I don’t know but what you’re right. Sam was always a rum ’un. Close as wax, that he was. Never let his right hand know what his left hand was doing. Still blood’s thicker than water, and he might ha’ written her a letter or something. Anyway I sha’n’t do no harm, ’specially as she ought to know for her own sake.”

And so one bright morning in February saw Mr. Grigsby get into a cab which took him to the Great Northern Railway station at King’s Cross. Here he took a ticket for Lincoln, and in half an hour’s time was speeding down to this quiet old English cathedral city.

When, after the usual amount of jolting, of stopping at stations​—​the names of which he tried to make out but couldn’t, owing to the queer pronunciation of the porters​—​of whistling, shrieking, and snorting on the part of the engines, he got out, weary and stiff, at his destination, he was a little bit puzzled what to do next. He first found his way into the High Street, which was easy enough, for Lincoln is all High Street, one end leading by a steep approach up to the cathedral, the other stretching away with the shops melting into private houses, the houses into cottages into the flat country beyond. Having got into the High Street he strolled to the right, being attracted, as all strangers naturally are, by the high square tower of the cathedral. When he came to the ancient one-arched bridge over the river Witham he stopped for a moment and looked at the dark sluggish narrow stream running beneath and the houses built on each side of the water, and then went on again, nearing the cathedral at every step, and beginning to puff and blow, for the ascent, as we have said, was steep, and climbing hills does not suit stout short-necked men at sixty years old or thereabouts.

“A glass of ale and a bit of something to eat wouldn’t be bad,” he thought, as he passed an inviting-looking inn of the old-fashioned kind, with its diamond-paned windows and low doorway, on which a signboard creaked with a lazy moan which assorted well with the generally lazy and easy-going air of the city itself.

And as he was in no hurry he determined to have some dinner before he went a step further, so he walked into the sanded parlour, ordered some ale of the buxom landlady, and inquired if he could have a chop. “Yes, he could,” said the landlady, “if he liked to wait while it was purchased.” Mr. Grigsby had no objection, and feeling in a very comfortable state of mind after a draught of ale, sat down on a settle by the window and watched the good people of Lincoln, or at least those of them whose business took them past the “Rose and Crown.”

The traffic certainly was not great, one reason being that the cathedral end of the city was the genteel end, and had that repose about it which the very presence of a cathedral seems to impart. Another reason was that it was between one and two o’clock, at which time most people in the country are having their dinners.

Perhaps it was the small number of persons who went by the window that made Jack Grigsby take more notice of them than he otherwise would have done. One woman in particular he was struck with. She was of a tall, upright figure, and was dressed in deep mourning, the sombreness of her attire making her rigid, square features seem more gloomy than they really were. She wore her black shawl pulled tightly over her shoulders and walked with her hands clasped in front of her, her elbows standing out square and uncompromising. By the lines in her face she was certainly not less than 50 years of age.

“I shouldn’t like to have to ask a favour of you, ma’am,” was Mr. Grigsby’s reflection, “because I think the chances are you wouldn’t grant it. I’m blest if yon sour face hasn’t taken away my appetite.”

But this wasn’t exactly correct, as the appearance of two chop bones half an hour hence plainly showed. Mr. Grigsby did justice to his dinner, and feeling greatly fortified therewith, commenced in earnest his quest after Sam’s sister.

“Do you know a Miss Somerset living in this city,” he asked of the buxom landlady.

“Somerset​—​Somerset!” repeated the landlady; “there used to be a family o’ that name who kept a farm about six miles from Lincoln. The son was a bit wild and went to sea, so I heard.”

“You’ve hit it, ma’am. Sam was wild, there’s no mistake about it. He was a shipmate o’ mine, ma’am, thirty years ago, though he was quite a boy at the time, and I was second mate. And what’s become of his sister?”

“Oh, I fancy she’s living in Lincoln somewhere, but her name isn’t Somerset now. She married years and years ago, and her husband’s dead.”

“Aye, aye. And what was her husband’s name?”

“Ah! that I can’t tell you, though I’ve heard it. But my man, Jim, ’ll know. Jim!” she called out.

Presently a weazen-faced old man, in a shabby velveteen coat, knee-breeches, and gray stockings, with a few loose straws sticking in his hair as if he usually made his bed in a stable loft, came shuffling into the bar from a back room.

“Who did Dorcas Somerset marry? This gentleman wants to know.”

“I was ploughman to Farmer Somerset five-and-forty year agone,” returned the old man, putting his hand to his head as though to assist his memory, “and well I remember young Sam Somerset running away to sea, and Miss Dorcas getting married. It was gay doings, sir, though the marriage turned out badly. Her husband runned through all her money and his own too in less than no time, and went into a gallopin’ ’sumption as took him off, and she was left a widder, sir, with a boy as when he growed up took arter his father.”

“Consumption do run in families,” said Mr. Grigsby.

“Oh, I don’t mean as young Bob Locket got ’sumption. Not he. It ’ud ha’ been a good thing p’raps if he had. Would ha’ broken his mother’s heart if she hadn’t been a stout ’un like all the Somersets. Got hold of bad ways did Bob Locket, sir, and turned out a regilar riprobate.”

“Then Locket is Miss Somerset’s name, is it?” said Mr. Grigsby, to whom all this was news.

“Locket’s her name, sir, sure enough. If you know’d her years ago you’d find her a bit changed. Sorrer don’t brighten up a woman’s face.”

“You ain’t far out, skipper, in them sentiments,” replied Jack. “And now since you’ve told me so much I shouldn’t wonder if you couldn’t tell me a bit more. Where’s Mrs. Locket a living, eh?”

“Down the other end of the street. An old ramshackled place it is, sir, about half a mile or so past the railway. You can’t mistake the house. Said to be a bit of the old abbey, sir. But anybody knows Mrs. Locket down there.”

“All right, captain, I shall find it. I ain’t without a tongue in my head.”

And giving the old man a sixpence for his information, Mr. Grigsby started off to retrace his steps and to find out Mrs. Locket.

As old Jim had said it was a very ancient house in which Sam’s sister lived. Just a fragment of old gray stone, cunningly jammed in between modern houses, with one lancet-shaped window stuck oddly above the doorway, to which (the door, not the window) you ascended by three steps that appeared to be cut in the wall itself, which could not have been less than three feet thick.

Mr. Grigsby ascended the three steps and gave a modest knock at the door. It was opened almost immediately, and the hard-featured woman who had attracted his attention an hour before stood before him.

“What do you want?” said she in a cross voice.

Jack Grigsby was so taken aback by the unexpected appearance of the woman that at first he could not reply. However, in a little while he recovered himself sufficiently to inquire of the woman whether her name was Locket.

“Yes, it is. What is your business?”

“Well, ma’am, if you’ve got time, I should like five minutes’ talk with you.”

Mrs. Locket looked at him suspiciously, as if wondering whether he might be safely trusted inside her house, and then said coldly, “You may come in.”

And accordingly Jack Grigsby went in, to find that the door opened directly upon a moderately-sized room poorly furnished. It was lighted from a window at the back, and in the corner was a staircase leading to the room above. The inside of the house did not at all correspond with the outside as to antiquity, and in all probability the fragment of the old abbey wall had been simply used by a modern builder to attach a couple of rooms to, as being cheaper and less troublesome than picking to pieces and pulling down the solid masonry, which the old monks knew so well how to build.

Mr. Grigsby deposited his hat on the floor, mopped his head with his handkerchief, and sat down opposite Mrs. Locket, who, square and grim, awaited standing what her visitor had to say.

“I’m not much at spinning a long yarn, Mrs. Locket, so I’ll come to the p’int at once. My name’s Grigsby, Jack Grigsby, and I’m an old friend of your brother, Captain Sam Somerset.”

Mrs. Locket nodded, as much as to say, “I’ve heard of you; go on.”

“Well, ma’am, fearing as you may not have heard the news of poor Sam’s death​—​”

“What!” she broke in, “is Sam dead?”

“Aye that he is. And it’s that as has brought me down here. It’s now getting on for three months. I was with him when he died, and just as he was a going he told me as all he had in the world was to go to his son. That seems plain and easy enough, don’t it? But it ain’t. Not a bit of it; ’cause I can’t find the boy, and you being the nighest relation as Sam had, I thought I’d see whether you knew where he was.”

“If you’d come to me six years ago I might have told you, but I know nothing about him now,” returned Mrs. Locket.

“That’s mighty strange, ain’t it? You’ll excuse me asking the question; but who might Sam have left the boy with when he went away?”

“He was left with me​—​that is in my charge.”

Mr. Grigsby thought she was going to say something else, and he waited, but she was silent.

“He’s not,” observed the old pilot slowly, “​—​dead.”

“I don’t know. He may be. I don’t suppose I should have heard of it though, if he was.”

Jack Grigsby was more and more mystified. At last he said, with a kind of desperation:

“Well, ma’am, the boy’s your kith and kin and not mine. It’s your dooty to look after him and not mine. I’ve told you what I’ve come about, and how as your brother Sam has left a bit of money and a piece of old iron as ain’t of no value at all, to his son, and I should be glad to know what you’re a going to do.”

“Did you ever have a son, Mr. Grigsby?”

“No,” remarked Jack, “I can’t say as I ever have.”

“You are fortunate. Mine has been nothing but a trouble to me since the day he was born. I’ve worked and slaved for him and had nothing but ingratitude in return. I never hear from him excepting when he wants some money, and though I can ill spare it, I have always shared whatever I have with him. But I suppose you wonder why I tell you this?”

Yes, Jack did wonder, for he could not understand what it had to do with Captain Somerset’s son.

“I tell it to you because it is all through my son Robert that I can give you no information about my nephew. When my brother went away eight years ago, his son Edward​—​”

“Edward!” ejaculated Mr. Grigsby.

“Yes, that was the boy’s name​—​was two years old. I didn’t care to be bothered with children, and I let my son Bob and his wife take care of him, especially as his father had promised to pay well for his keep. Well, Sam sent some money six months after he went away, and from that day to this not another word was heard from him. When the boy should have been five years old Bob sends me word that Edward went out to play down by the river side at low water, and never comes home. My son made all inquiry, but could find no tidings of the lad, and wrote to me he thought he was drowned.”

“And do you believe it, ma’am?” asked Mr. Grigsby.

“No, I don’t,” answered Mrs. Locket shortly. “It’s a hard thing to say about my own son, but my belief is that as Sam sent no more money he turned the boy out of doors. He’s capable of it.”

“Then all I’ve got to say, though he is your son, is that he deserves to have a round dozen,” exclaimed Jack with honest indignation. “But what makes you think the boy was turned out of doors?”

“I taxed Ann, his wife, with it one day, and she half admitted I was right.”

“And where does this precious son of yours live?”

“I don’t know.”

“Where did he live when the boy was with him?”

“In the south of London​—​Rotherhithe, I think it was.”

“Well, ma’am, I give you notice I shall do my best to find poor Sam’s child, and if there’s any way of punishing the rascal who​—​”

Mr. Grigsby stopped, suddenly remembering that the man he called a rascal was the son of the woman he was talking to; but she heard him unmoved, and he finished up the sentence by saying, “I’ll do it.”

“There’s one thing more I’ve got to say to you, ma’am,” went on Jack, picking up his hat, preparatory to taking his leave, “and it’s this. If the boy can’t be found all the money that should be his comes to you as next of kin.”

“And I trust it never may. It will do me no good. I have just enough to live on, and the more I have the more I shall have to give away,” returned the woman gloomily.

Mr. Grigsby understood her. He knew she referred to her son Bob.

He said no more, but, bidding her adieu, went out and was once more in the High Street of Lincoln, up which he walked very slowly and very thoughtfully to the railway-station.

“It’s a rum coin-ci-dence, if it ain’t no more,” he thought. “Sam’s boy is named Edward and my boy’s named Ned. What d’ye make o’ that, Jack Grigsby? Sam’s boy is cast adrift somewhere nigh the river. Mine’s picked up nigh the river. T’other side, it’s true, but what o’ that? It’s a coin-cidence.”

And Mr. Grigsby was so full of the “coincidence” he walked slower and slower, with the result that when he arrived at the station he found the London train had just gone, and that there was not another one until late in the evening.

“I sha’n’t get home afore midnight, and everybody will have gone to bed. I’d better stop and go in the morning.”

And so he did. He went back to the “Rose and Crown,” engaged a bed, and started for town the next day, arriving at King’s Cross about noon.

As he neared his house he saw the face of his granddaughter at the window.

“There’s my Nell,” he thought, “watching for me, bless her heart.”

Nell did not wait for her grandfather to come up to the house, but ran out to meet him.

“Oh, grandfather!” she cried. “Ned​—​Ned​—​”

And she burst into a flood of tears.

“Eh, what​—​what? Nellie, my deary, what’s the matter?”

But “Ned” was all he could distinguish amid her sobs.

He took her hand and they went together into the house. His wife met him in the passage and he saw from her face that something was wrong.

“My dear John,” said the blind woman, “a strange​—​a sad thing has happened. Ned has gone.”

“Gone!” exclaimed Jack Grigsby. “What do you mean, old lady?”

“He has disappeared. He went to school yesterday afternoon as usual, but has never come home.”

“Yes, and I’m sure something has hap​—​hap​—​hap​—​pened to him,” sobbed Nellie. “He wouldn’t g​—​g—go away without saying goo​—​goo​—​good-bye to me.”

Mr. Grigsby was dumfoundered. He couldn’t say a word. Still holding his granddaughter’s hand he walked into the little parlour and sat down dejectedly in the arm-chair.

“Well I never!” at last he ejaculated. “This is the most knockdownest blow as ever I had.”

“When he didn’t come home for two hours after school was over I sent Ann to see whether he had been kept in,” continued Mrs. Grigsby. “But no, it seems he left school at the right time, and said good-night at the comer of the street to one of the boys who came home with him, and that’s all we can find out.”

And that indeed was all. The police were informed, inquiries were made at the hospitals lest he had met with an accident, the old pilot rambled up and down the streets of Shadwell, thinking he might chance to come across the boy in some of his old haunts; but no, the days went by and Ned did not come back.