Chapter V

Hatching a Plot

It is an antiquated, tumble-down, ruinous wooden dwelling by the river side, a little below Limehouse. It has a queer gable-shaped roof, also of wood, which hangs frowningly over the water, the slope of the house being in that direction, as if it were for ever contemplating taking a “header” into the restless muddy stream below. At low tide the foundations of the house are not only laid bare, but many yards of mud besides, while at high tide the water comes up to within three or four feet of a bow-window, across the upper half of which hangs a blind which was once red, but is now of a dingy yellowish brown.

This house is called the “Jolly Waterman,” a public-house by its name, you will say. The “Jolly Waterman” is not a clean nor an inviting house in any way. Its customers are chiefly rough-looking men, not exactly sailors and not exactly landsmen, but a mixture of both​—​mysterious people of no occupation apparently, and only seen by the river side. These men are given much to lounging on the object nearest to hand, whether it may be the bar of the “Jolly Waterman” (and very often it is), the dirty wooden wainscotting on the side of the passage leading to the bow-windowed room before spoken of, or the empty casks which are conveniently placed near the low ill-shaped door. The landlord of the “Jolly Waterman” is very friendly with the rough men who lounge in and out all day, and is as often one of the loungers as not, leaving to his wife​—​a pale-faced woman, with a manner about her as if she were continually afraid of something​—​the duty of attending to business.

But to-night the landlord, Bob Locket, as he is familiarly called, is not in the bar. He is in the room with the bow-window, sitting by the side of a rough wooden table on which is a tallow candle, burning dimly, and a couple of glasses, while on the other side is a gentleman whom we have met before​—​Hosea Lampard, once mate of the Good Fortune.

“You see, captain, you couldn’t have got on without me after all,” said Mr. Locket.

“I don’t know about that, sir. I’m pretty spry when I take a thing in my head,” replied the American, who seemed to be in an ill humour.

“Oh, you’re quite right there, captain; quite right,” hastily rejoined the other, evidently anxious to keep him in a good temper. “But then, you know, you dursn’t show yourself. That’s where it is, you see. Now I goes along to the old fellow’s house, pretends to be a beggar, and get a good look inside the room where it is.”

“But what I say is this: there’s too many in it.”

“There now, how unreasonable you are, captain. Look here, just see how it lies. A seafaring chap comes promiscous to the ‘Jolly Waterman,’ and lets out how Captain Somerset’s homeward bound, and dies just when he’s coming into port. Well, I can’t help that, can I? You see it was known to more than you and that Chinaman, and I wasn’t to blame for using my information, was I?”

The American was by no means satisfied with the explanation. He only shifted his legs, which were resting on the window-sill, and puffed a huge cloud of smoke from between his lips.

“Besides, you know, I was useful,” continued the landlord of the “Jolly Waterman,” darting a cunning look at the Yankee. “If there’s one too many it’s the Chinaman, not me, who’s in the way.”

“You won’t get rid of him in a hurry, I reckon. Ah Ling Foo’s cut his wise teeth long ago, don’t you make any mistake about that. If that little rascal hadn’t come in our way I shouldn’t have wanted the pleasure of your acquaintance, Bob Locket, and that’s a fact. Wa’al, it’s no use growling over what can’t be helped, only mind you this, stranger, don’t you play me false. We’ve got an ugly way of showing our temper in the States when we’re riled.”

“You may trust in me, captain, as you would in your own brother.”

“That ain’t saying much,” grumbled the “captain;” “for I wouldn’t trust him with half-a-dollar and be sartin of seeing it again.”

He paused a moment to puff at his cigar and then said: “Have you got anything more to say to me?”

“No, I don’t think so,” returned the landlord doubtfully. “We’ve settled upon the night, and that’s the most important thing, I suppose.”

The “captain” slowly swung his feet off the window-sill on to the ground, and as slowly rose from his feet.

“Then it’s a bargain,” said he.

“A bargain,” repeated the other.

The landlord accompanied his visitor to the door and returned to the parlour.

“It shall go hard but what I’ll have the best of the bargain,” he muttered, a smile, and a very ugly smile it was too, flitting over his face. “Ann,” he called out in a loud voice.

The faded-looking woman put her head in at the door.

“Yes, Bob.”

“What about the​—​lodger?” asked the man, with a jerk of his head upwards.

“He’s all right.”

“Mind he is, that’s all,” returned Mr. Locket scowling. “I’m going out to-night, and he’s in your charge, recollect that.”

“Yes, Bob.”

“Here’s the key​—​or stay. On second thoughts I won’t leave you the key. You’re so precious soft-hearted you might be tempted to let him give us the slip. I’m not going to lose over a hundred pounds just for your silliness.”

The woman said nothing. She was too used to be bullied, and even worse​—​struck, by her husband, ever to argue or to question anything he said.

“And what time will you be home?”

“What’s that to you? I can let myself in, I suppose.”

“Yes, I suppose so,” she returned drearily.

She waited in case he had anything more to say, and finding he had not, disappeared behind the bar.

By-and-by the clock of Limehouse Church chimes the hour of eleven, and Mr. Bob Locket puts on a rough fur cap with lappets on each side, which he pulls down on his cheeks, ties with a string under his chin, and goes out.

His wife sits in the bar for nearly ten minutes, serves one customer, and after the latter has left the house goes herself to the door and looks to the right and left. There are very few people about, for it is a lonely narrow street in which the “Jolly Waterman” is situated, and the buildings mostly consist of ships’ chandlers’ (where you can buy everything wanted on board ship, from a nail to an anchor block,) and mast makers’, and tar, pitch, and rosin warehouses.

She stands in the doorway for two or three minutes and then goes inside, pulls up the shutters and screws them, and locks the door. Then she ascends the narrow rickety staircase leading to the top of the house. The staircase, which is built in the very centre of the house between the rooms, ends at a landing which, like the slope of the house, inclines towards the river. The boards have shrunk with age, and there are gaping cracks between them. They creak and rattle as she walks over them towards a ladder which is nailed against a wall, and at the top of which is a small door. This ladder she climbs, and then taps at the door.

“It is only me, Ned, dear.”

There is the sound of a footstep within, and the woman puts her ear to the crack in the door.

“Won’t you give me something to eat, Ann? I’m so hungry.”

“Poor boy. I would, but I can’t open the door.”

“Is that beast out?”

“You mean Bob?”

“Bob if you like; it used to be Phil. Not that I care. I hate him whatever you call him.”

“Yes, he has gone out and taken the key with him,” said the woman tearfully.

“Does he mean to starve me? You know I haven’t had a bit of anything all day. What’s he shut me up here for? What’s it for, I say? I’ve never done any harm to him, have I, Ann?”

“No, dear; no. He’s very wicked. I can’t say any more than that. He was always bad, Ned, and he gets worse as he gets older.”

“Six years ago he turns me out o’ doors, and now he collars me and shuts me up in this black hole. Oh! if I could only get out I’d show him as he can’t do as he likes with me.”

And the woman heard him grind his teeth and stamp on the floor with passion. She waited until he was calm again, and then passing her hand along the bottom of the door said: “I think there’s room to slip a thin slice of bread and butter underneath the door. How stupid of me not to think of it before!”

And without waiting for a reply she slipped down the ladder and ran down-stairs to the kitchen, where she cut half a dozen wafer-like slices, and, brought them up again. One by one she slipped them through the division between the door and the floor of the room, for here, as everywhere else in the house, the wood had shrunk, and though they arrived with a considerable addition in the shape of dust, the boy seized them with eagerness and devoured them ravenously.

For a whole fortnight he had been imprisoned in a miserable loft, without firing or covering save a miserably tattered blanket. There were no windows in this loft, and the only means he possessed of dividing day from night were through the rays of light which came through the chinks in the wooden roof. He had been miserably fed, too, scarcely having had enough to eat to keep body and soul together, and strong and wiry as his outdoor life had made him, he felt he could not endure this starvation diet much longer.

How like an ugly dream the whole thing seemed! To go home from school whistling cheerfully, and thinking of the bright pretty face of Nellie awaiting him, to be suddenly seized round the neck, to have something like a handkerchief thrust in his mouth, and to be dragged vainly struggling and thrust into a cab!​—​he could scarcely realize it when he thought of it. Often when the dismal reality did come home to him the hot blinding tears ran down his cheeks, for he knew what might be said of him at Gibraltar cottage​—​that he had behaved with ingratitude, and had run away to go back to his old life.

And then the old stubborn spirit of independence came to his rescue and gave him fresh courage. He would make his escape in spite of his prison, and carefully he felt all over the roof​—​for the distance from the floor at the highest part was scarcely five feet​—​in search of a board which might be loose or where the nails had rusted. But, alas! the wood was both thick and firm, and the nails were ship nails, made of copper, and not likely to be affected by the weather. And so in spite of his courage and his endeavours his hopes began to fall when at the end of a fortnight he still found himself shut up.

And besides, as it occurred to him in his despondent moments, even supposing he was able to make his way on to the roof, how could he get down. He hoped that the houses adjoining might be of the same height, so that if he crawled along somebody might take pity on him; but these houses might be much higher or much lower, and in either case his efforts would be useless. And again his hopes were dashed, and he went back again to the dull, miserable thought that there was some dreadful plot to keep him shut up for years, and perhaps​—​who could tell?​—​starve him to death.

The half-dozen slices, dirt and all, put him in a little brighter frame of mind, and he no longer had that terrible gnawing inside him which made him feel faint and sick.

“Ann,” he whispered, “do you hate me like he does.”

The boy could never bring himself to call Bob Locket by his name.

“You know, dear, I do not.”

“You don’t want to keep me here?” he said again.

“Heaven knows I do not.”

“Then for pity’s sake let me out. I promise you I won’t say a word against him to get him into trouble. I’ll forget all about it. I will indeed.”

“My poor boy, I cannot. I have not the key, and if I had​—​”

She hesitated and stopped.

“What! Would you not let me out?”

“Yes,” she exclaimed with energy, “even though Bob killed me. Ned, dear, trust to me. I will steal the key while he is asleep and unlock the door.”

The boy thought for a moment. He knew well the savage, vindictive character of his cousin​—​for Bob Locket stood really, as you may have guessed, in that relation to him​—​and he was sure that his poor wife would suffer, and suffer terribly.

“No,” said he at last, “don’t you do anything that will make him ill use you. We’ll find out another plan​—​”

The sound of the grating of a key in the lock of the street door here came plainly up the staircase, and in a terrible flutter and trembling all over Ann Locket hastily descended the ladder and ran down into the bar just in time to meet her husband.

He scowled at her but said nothing; and turning, beckoned to some one outside. A heavy tread of feet and in came two men in yellow fur caps like that which Locket wore, thick jackets, and with gaudy crimson handkerchiefs round their necks. “Bargee” was plainly written all over their faces and their clothes, and bargees they were.

“Come on, mates,” growled Locket. “Give us a candle, Ann. Quick!”

With shaking fingers the woman tried to light a candle, but she bungled so that her husband, muttering, snatched the candlestick from her and lighted it himself.

He was walking towards the staircase, followed by the two men, when his wife, with her face white as a sheet, came in front of him and barred the passage.

“What are you going to do, Bob?” she demanded.

“’Tisn’t no business of yours. Stand aside, will you?”

“No; not till I know you are not going to hurt the boy,” said she, clinging to his arm with all her strength.

“Of course we’re not going to hurt him. Who said we were?”

And he roughly swung her aside, so that stumbling she fell on the ground. She was up again in a moment.

“You are men,” she cried, panting, “you will not harm a poor lad who has never done you an injury.”

“There’s no harming in the matter, missis,” gruffly replied one of the fellows. “He’s ’prenticed to us, that’s all. There ain’t no call to make a row about it. He’ll be brought up to a respectiable calling and ’ll earn no end of money.”

Ann looked wildly from one face to the other as if to see which face was the milder.

“Come along. What are you waiting for?” impatiently interposed her husband.

And while the woman stood helplessly by, the three men went up the narrow rickety staircase.

When they got to the ladder one of the bargees held the candle while Bob Locket climbed up to the door of the loft. He unlocked it and savagely called to the lad to come out.

“I know what you want. You have come to kill me. Brute, monster!” almost shrieked Ned. “Help! help!” he cried.

“He’ll rouse the neighbourhood,” muttered Bob. “Here, stop that noise. Don’t be a fool. You won’t be hurt if you keep quiet.”

And without more ado he made a dash into the loft and seized the boy, who bit, fought, kicked with all his might and main, and dragged him out, delivering him like a parcel into the hands of the second of the bargees, who deposited him breathless and exhausted on the ground. In less than half a minute he was bound hand and foot, his mouth bandaged, and in this plight was carried down by the two men. Bob Locket preceding them, red, dishevelled, and angry, with a handkerchief tied round his fingers where they had come in contact with Ned’s teeth.

The candle had gone out in the struggle, so that Locket was unable to run down-stairs, and so came unawares upon his wife, who was standing at the foot of the staircase. Before she knew where she was she was bundled into the room with the bow-window and the key turned upon her.

“That’s the best place for you,” he called out, “if you can’t be sensible and behave yourself.”

There appeared to be some kind of light cart waiting outside, and into this Ned was shot as if he were so much lumber. He found it was impossible to move, and so there he lay looking and really almost feeling, more dead than alive.

Presently the bargees got into the cart, and after each had taken a deep draught of beer, the horse was whipped up and he started off at a smart pace.

The journey lasted apparently about twenty minutes, when the cart came to a stop, and the smell of pitch seemed to tell the lad they were in the neighbourhood of ships.

“Look here, youngster, if you promise to be quiet we’ll let you walk, but if you ain’t quiet why, it ’ll be all the worse for you.”

It was useless to think of resisting, and so Ned promised. He was lifted out of the cart and the rope taken off his legs. When he had collected his senses he saw at once where he was; on the quay of the Regent’s Canal basin. One of those long narrow, gaily painted barges was moored close to the side, fully loaded, and the horse standing by with the tow-rope already attached, gave sign that a start would be soon made.

“In with you,” growled the elder of the two men. “Quick, if you don’t want me to help you with my boot.”

Ned looked round, but there was not the slightest hope of resistance, and as the men looked remarkably evil and the water very black and suggestive of drowning, he thought it best to obey. Another minute and he had stepped into the little cabin, which was filled with a dense bitter smoke from a small stove, causing his eyes and nose to smart and itch, the horse was urged on, the tow-rope tightened, and the barge began to move.