Mr Button was seated on a sea-chest with a fiddle under his left ear. He was playing the "Shan van vaught," and accompanying the tune, punctuating it, with blows of his left heel on the fo'cs'le deck.
"O the Frinch are in the bay, Says the Shan van vaught."
He was dressed in dungaree trousers, a striped shirt, and a jacket baize—green in parts from the influence of sun and salt. A typical old shell-back, round-shouldered, hooked of finger; a figure with strong hints of a crab about it.
His face was like a moon, seen red through tropical mists; and as he played it wore an expression of strained attention as though the fiddle were telling him tales much more marvellous than the old bald statement about Bantry Bay.
"Left-handed Pat," was his fo'cs'le name; not because he was left-handed, but simply because everything he did he did wrong—or nearly so. Reefing or furling, or handling a slush tub—if a mistake was to be made, he made it.
He was a Celt, and all the salt seas that had flowed between him and Connaught these forty years and more had not washed the Celtic element from his blood, nor the belief in fairies from his soul. The Celtic nature is a fast dye, and Mr Button's nature was such that though he had been shanghaied by Larry Marr in 'Frisco, though he had got drunk in most ports of the world, though he had sailed with Yankee captains and been man-handled by Yankee mates, he still carried his fairies about with him—they, and a very large stock of original innocence.
Nearly over the musician's head swung a hammock from which hung a leg; other hammocks hanging in the semi-gloom called up suggestions of lemurs and arboreal bats. The swinging kerosene lamp cast its light forward, past the heel of the bowsprit to the knightheads, lighting here a naked foot hanging over the side of a bunk, here a face from which protruded a pipe, here a breast covered with dark mossy hair, here an arm tattooed.
It was in the days before double topsail yards had reduced ships' crews, and the fo'cs'le of the Northumberland had a full company: a crowd of packet rats such as often is to be found on a Cape Horner "Dutchmen" Americans—men who were farm labourers and tending pigs in Ohio three months back, old seasoned sailors like Paddy Button—a mixture of the best and the worst of the earth, such as you find nowhere else in so small a space as in a ship's fo'cs'le.
The Northumberland had experienced a terrible rounding of the Horn. Bound from New Orleans to 'Frisco she had spent thirty days battling with head-winds and storms—down there, where the seas are so vast that three waves may cover with their amplitude more than a mile of sea space; thirty days she had passed off Cape Stiff, and just now, at the moment of this story, she was locked in a calm south of the line.
Mr Button finished his tune with a sweep of the bow, and drew his right coat sleeve across his forehead. Then he took out a sooty pipe, filled it with tobacco, and lit it.
"Pawthrick," drawled a voice from the hammock above, from which depended the leg, "what was that yarn you wiz beginnin' to spin ter night 'bout a lip me dawn?"
"A which me dawn?" asked Mr Button, cocking his eye up at the bottom of the hammock while he held the match to his pipe.
"It vas about a green thing," came a sleepy Dutch voice from a bunk.
"Oh, a Leprachaun you mane. Sure, me mother's sister had one down in Connaught."
"Vat vas it like?" asked the dreamy Dutch voice—a voice seemingly possessed by the calm that had made the sea like a mirror for the last three days, reducing the whole ship's company meanwhile to the level of wasters.
"Like? Sure, it was like a Leprachaun; and what else would it be like?"
"What like vas that?" persisted the voice.
"It was like a little man no bigger than a big forked raddish, an' as green as a cabbidge. Me a'nt had one in her house down in Connaught in the ould days. O musha! musha! the ould days, the ould days! Now, you may b'lave me or b'lave me not, but you could have put him in your pocket, and the grass-green head of him wouldn't more than'v stuck out. She kept him in a cupboard, and out of the cupboard he'd pop if it was a crack open, an' into the milk pans he'd be, or under the beds, or pullin' the stool from under you, or at some other divarsion. He'd chase the pig—the crathur!—till it'd be all ribs like an ould umbrilla with the fright, an' as thin as a greyhound with the runnin' by the marnin; he'd addle the eggs so the cocks an' hens wouldn't know what they wis afther wid the chickens comin' out wid two heads on them, an' twinty-seven legs fore and aft. And you'd start to chase him, an' then it'd be mainsail haul, and away he'd go, you behint him, till you'd landed tail over snout in a ditch, an' he'd be back in the cupboard."
"He was a Troll," murmured the Dutch voice.
"I'm tellin' you he was a Leprachaun, and there's no knowin' the divilments he'd be up to. He'd pull the cabbidge, maybe, out of the pot boilin' on the fire forenint your eyes, and baste you in the face with it; and thin, maybe, you'd hold out your fist to him, and he'd put a goulden soverin in it."
"Wisht he was here!" murmured a voice from a bunk near the knightheads.
"Pawthrick," drawled the voice from the hammock above, "what'd you do first if you found y'self with twenty pound in your pocket?"
"What's the use of askin' me?" replied Mr Button. "What's the use of twenty pound to a sayman at say, where the grog's all wather an' the beef's all horse? Gimme it ashore, an' you'd see what I'd do wid it!"
"I guess the nearest grog-shop keeper wouldn't see you comin' for dust," said a voice from Ohio.
"He would not," said Mr Button; "nor you afther me. Be damned to the grog and thim that sells it!"
"It's all darned easy to talk," said Ohio. "You curse the grog at sea when you can't get it; set you ashore, and you're bung full."
"I likes me dhrunk," said Mr Button, "I'm free to admit; an' I'm the divil when it's in me, and it'll be the end of me yet, or me ould mother was a liar. 'Pat,' she says, first time I come home from say rowlin', 'storms you may escape, an' wimmen you may escape, but the potheen 'ill have you.' Forty year ago—forty year ago!"
"Well," said Ohio, "it hasn't had you yet."
"No," replied Mr Button, "but it will."
It was a wonderful night up on deck, filled with all the majesty and beauty of starlight and a tropic calm.
The Pacific slept; a vast, vague swell flowing from far away down south under the night, lifted the Northumberland on its undulations to the rattling sound of the reef points and the occasional creak of the rudder; whilst overhead, near the fiery arch of the Milky Way, hung the Southern Cross like a broken kite.
Stars in the sky, stars in the sea, stars by the million and the million; so many lamps ablaze that the firmament filled the mind with the idea of a vast and populous city—yet from all that living and flashing splendour not a sound.
Down in the cabin—or saloon, as it was called by courtesy—were seated the three passengers of the ship; one reading at the table, two playing on the floor.
The man at the table, Arthur Lestrange, was seated with his large, deep-sunken eyes fixed on a book. He was most evidently in consumption—very near, indeed, to reaping the result of that last and most desperate remedy, a long sea voyage.
Emmeline Lestrange, his little niece—eight years of age, a mysterious mite, small for her age, with thoughts of her own, wide-pupilled eyes that seemed the doors for visions, and a face that seemed just to have peeped into this world for a moment ere it was as suddenly withdrawn—sat in a corner nursing something in her arms, and rocking herself to the tune of her own thoughts.
Dick, Lestrange's little son, eight and a bit, was somewhere under the table. They were Bostonians, bound for San Francisco, or rather for the sun and splendour of Los Angeles, where Lestrange had bought a small estate, hoping there to enjoy the life whose lease would be renewed by the long sea voyage.
As he sat reading, the cabin door opened, and appeared an angular female form. This was Mrs Stannard, the stewardess, and Mrs Stannard meant bedtime.
"Dicky," said Mr Lestrange, closing his book, and raising the table-cloth a few inches, "bedtime."
"Oh, not yet, daddy!" came a sleep-freighted voice from under the table; "I ain't ready. I dunno want to go to bed, I— Hi yow!"
Mrs Stannard, who knew her work, had stooped under the table, seized him by the foot, and hauled him out kicking and fighting and blubbering all at the same time.
As for Emmeline, she having glanced up and recognised the inevitable, rose to her feet, and, holding the hideous rag-doll she had been nursing, head down and dangling in one hand, she stood waiting till Dicky, after a few last perfunctory bellows, suddenly dried his eyes and held up a tear-wet face for his father to kiss. Then she presented her brow solemnly to her uncle, received a kiss and vanished, led by the hand into a cabin on the port side of the saloon.
Mr Lestrange returned to his book, but he had not read for long when the cabin door was opened, and Emmeline, in her nightdress, reappeared, holding a brown paper parcel in her hand, a parcel of about the same size as the book you are reading.
"My box," said she; and as she spoke, holding it up as if to prove its safety, the little plain face altered to the face of an angel.
She had smiled.
When Emmeline Lestrange smiled it was absolutely as if the light of Paradise had suddenly flashed upon her face: the happiest form of childish beauty suddenly appeared before your eyes, dazzled them—and was gone.
Then she vanished with her box, and Mr Lestrange resumed his book.
This box of Emmeline's, I may say in parenthesis, had given more trouble aboard ship than all of the rest of the passengers' luggage put together.
It had been presented to her on her departure from Boston by a lady friend, and what it contained was a dark secret to all on board, save its owner and her uncle; she was a woman, or, at all events, the beginning of a woman, yet she kept this secret to herself—a fact which you will please note.
The trouble of the thing was that it was frequently being lost. Suspecting herself, maybe, as an unpractical dreamer in a world filled with robbers, she would cart it about with her for safety, sit down behind a coil of rope and fall into a fit of abstraction: be recalled to life by the evolutions of the crew reefing or furling or what not, rise to superintend the operations—and then suddenly find she had lost her box.
Then she would absolutely haunt the ship. Wide-eyed and distressed of face she would wander hither and thither, peeping into the galley, peeping down the forescuttle, never uttering a word or wail, searching like an uneasy ghost, but dumb.
She seemed ashamed to tell of her loss, ashamed to let any one know of it; but every one knew of it directly they saw her, to use Mr Button's expression, "on the wandher," and every one hunted for it.
Strangely enough it was Paddy Button who usually found it. He who was always doing the wrong thing in the eyes of men, generally did the right thing in the eyes of children. Children, in fact, when they could get at Mr Button, went for him con amore. He was as attractive to them as a Punch and Judy show or a German band—almost.
Mr Lestrange after a while closed the book he was reading, looked around him and sighed.
The cabin of the Northumberland was a cheerful enough place, pierced by the polished shaft of the mizzen mast, carpeted with an Axminster carpet, and garnished with mirrors let into the white pine panelling. Lestrange was staring at the reflection of his own face in one of these mirrors fixed just opposite to where he sat.
His emaciation was terrible, and it was just perhaps at this moment that he first recognised the fact that he must not only die, but die soon.
He turned from the mirror and sat for a while with his chin resting upon his hand, and his eyes fixed on an ink spot upon the table-cloth; then he arose, and crossing the cabin climbed laboriously up the companion-way to the deck.
As he leaned against the bulwark rail to recover his breath, the splendour and beauty of the Southern night struck him to the heart with a cruel pang. He took his seat on a deck chair and gazed up at the Milky Way, that great triumphal arch built of suns that the dawn would sweep away like a dream.
In the Milky Way, near the Southern Cross, occurs a terrible circular abyss, the Coal Sack. So sharply defined is it, so suggestive of a void and bottomless cavern, that the contemplation of it afflicts the imaginative mind with vertigo. To the naked eye it is as black and as dismal as death, but the smallest telescope reveals it beautiful and populous with stars.
Lestrange's eyes travelled from this mystery to the burning cross, and the nameless and numberless stars reaching to the sea-line, where they paled and vanished in the light of the rising moon. Then he became aware of a figure promenading the quarter-deck. It was the "Old Man."
A sea captain is always the "old man," be his age what it may. Captain Le Farges' age might have been forty-five. He was a sailor of the Jean Bart type, of French descent, but a naturalised American.
"I don't know where the wind's gone," said the captain as he drew near the man in the deck chair. "I guess it's blown a hole in the firmament, and escaped somewheres to the back of beyond."
"It's been a long voyage," said Lestrange; "and I'm thinking, Captain, it will be a very long voyage for me. My port's not 'Frisco; I feel it."
"Don't you be thinking that sort of thing," said the other, taking his seat in a chair close by. "There's no manner of use forecastin' the weather a month ahead. Now we're in warm latitoods, your glass will rise steady, and you'll be as right and spry as any one of us, before we fetch the Golden Gates."
"I'm thinking about the children," said Lestrange, seeming not to hear the captain's words. "Should anything happen to me before we reach port, I should like you to do something for me. It's only this: dispose of my body without—without the children knowing. It has been in my mind to ask you this for some days. Captain, those children know nothing of death."
Le Farge moved uneasily in his chair.
"Little Emmeline's mother died when she was two. Her father—my brother—died before she was born. Dicky never knew a mother; she died giving him birth. My God, Captain, death has laid a heavy hand on my family; can you wonder that I have hid his very name from those two creatures that I love!"
"Ay, ay," said Le Farge, "it's sad! it's sad!"
"When I was quite a child," went on Lestrange, "a child no older than Dicky, my nurse used to terrify me with tales about dead people. I was told I'd go to hell when I died if I wasn't a good child. I cannot tell you how much that has poisoned my life, for the thoughts we think in childhood, Captain, are the fathers of the thoughts we think when we are grown up. And can a diseased father—have healthy children?"
"I guess not."
"So I just said, when these two tiny creatures came into my care, that I would do all in my power to protect them from the terrors of life—or rather, I should say, from the terror of death. I don't know whether I have done right, but I have done it for the best. They had a cat, and one day Dicky came in to me and said: 'Father, pussy's in the garden asleep, and I can't wake her.' So I just took him out for a walk; there was a circus in the town, and I took him to it. It so filled his mind that he quite forgot the cat. Next day he asked for her. I did not tell him she was buried in the garden, I just said she must have run away. In a week he had forgotten all about her—children soon forget."
"Ay, that's true," said the sea captain. "But 'pears to me they must learn some time they've got to die."
"Should I pay the penalty before we reach land, and be cast into that great, vast sea, I would not wish the children's dreams to be haunted by the thought: just tell them I've gone on board another ship. You will take them back to Boston; I have here, in a letter, the name of a lady who will care for them. Dicky will be well off, as far as worldly goods are concerned, and so will Emmeline. Just tell them I've gone on board another ship—children soon forget."
"I'll do what you ask," said the seaman.
The moon was over the horizon now, and the Northumberland lay adrift in a river of silver. Every spar was distinct, every reef point on the great sails, and the decks lay like spaces of frost cut by shadows black as ebony.
As the two men sat without speaking, thinking their own thoughts, a little white figure emerged from the saloon hatch. It was Emmeline. She was a professed sleepwalker—a past mistress of the art.
Scarcely had she stepped into dreamland than she had lost her precious box, and now she was hunting for it on the decks of the Northumberland.
Mr Lestrange put his finger to his lips, took off his shoes and silently followed her. She searched behind a coil of rope, she tried to open the galley door; hither and thither she wandered, wide-eyed and troubled of face, till at last, in the shadow of the hencoop, she found her visionary treasure. Then back she came, holding up her little nightdress with one hand, so as not to trip, and vanished down the saloon companion very hurriedly, as if anxious to get back to bed, her uncle close behind, with one hand outstretched so as to catch her in case she stumbled.