class="x-ebookmaker-pageno" title="28"/> I flushed up as I answered that I was no confidant of the crew: that the cook had stopped me to explain the men's grievance, and that I had asked him for a biscuit to show the captain as a sample of the ship's bread which the steward was serving out.
"It's very good bread," said the obsequious pilot, taking up the biscuit whilst he wiped the butter out of the corners of his mouth.
"Eat it, then!" I exclaimed.
"Damnation! eat it yourself!" cried Coxon, furiously. "You're used to that kind of fare, I should think, and like it, or you wouldn't be bringing it into the cuddy in your pocket, would you, sir?"
I made him no answer. I could see by the expression in Duckling's face that he sided with the skipper, and I thought it would be a bad look-out for me to begin the voyage with a quarrel.
"I'll trouble you to put that biscuit where you took it from," the captain continued, with an enraged nod in the direction of my pocket, "and return it to the blackguard who gave it, and tell him to present Captain Coxon's respects to the men, and inform them that if they object to the ship's bread, they're welcome to take their meals along with the pigs in the long-boat. The butcher 'll serve them."
"Mr. Royle tells me they find the meat worse than the bread," said Mr. Duckling. "I guess the hounds who grumble most are men who have shipped out of workhouses, where their grub was burnt burgoo twice a day, and a lick of brimstone to make it easy."
He laughed loudly at his own humour, and was joined by the pilot, who rubbed his hands and swore that he hadn't heard a better joke for years.
I made what despatch I might with my tea, not much desiring to remain in company with Coxon in his present temper. I fancy he grew a little ashamed of himself presently, for he softened his voice and now and again glanced across at me. The pilot, looking up through the skylight, called attention to the vane at the main-royal masthead, which was fluttering to a light air from the south-west, as had been predicted, and as I could tell by referring to the tell-tale compass, which was swung just over where Coxon was seated. Then Coxon and his chief mate talked of the time they meant to occupy in the run to Valparaiso. I understood the former to say that his employers had given him eight weeks to do it in. I should like to have said that had they added another two to that, they would still have been imposing enough upon us all to keep us alive. But at this point I quitted the table, giving Coxon a bow as I rose, which he returned with a sort of half-ashamed stiffness, and repaired to my cabin to get my pipe for a half-hour's enjoyment of the beautiful autumn evening on deck.
I don't think tobacco has the same flavour ashore that it has at sea. Something in the salt air brings out the full richness and aroma of it. A few whiffs on the main-deck came like oil upon the agitation of my mind, ruffled by Coxon's impertinence and temper. I stepped on to the forecastle to see that the riding-lamps were all right, and that there was a man on the look-out. The crew were in the forecastle talking in subdued voices, and the hot air that came up through the fore-scuttle was intolerable as I passed it. I then regained the poop, and seated myself on the rail among the shadows of the backstays leading from the main-royal and top-gallant masts.
The sun had gone down some time now, and only faint traces of daylight lowered in the westward. The light on the South Foreland emitted a most beautiful, clear, and brilliant beam, and diffused a broad area of misty radiance on the land around. The light-beacons were winking along the Goodwin Sands, and pretty close at hand were the lights of Deal, a pale, fine constellation, which made the country all the darker for their presence. The moon would not rise until after nine, but the heavens were spangled with stars, some so lustrous that the calm sea mirrowed them in cones of silver; and from time to time flashing shooting-stars chased across the sky, and with their blue fires offered a peculiar contrast to the eye with the yellow and red lights on the water.
There was a little air moving from the southward, but so light as scarcely to be noticeable to any man but a sailor awaiting a change. The vessels at anchor near us loomed large in the starlit gloom that overspread the face of the sea. Lights flitted upon them; and the voices of men singing, the jingling of a concertina or a fiddle, the rumbling of yards lowered aboard some new-comers which could not be descried, and now and again the measured splash of oars, were sounds which only served to give a deeper intensity to the solemn calm of the night.
The inmates of the cuddy still kept their seats, and their voices came out through the open skylights. I heard Captain Coxon say—
"I should like to know what sort of a fellow they have given me for a second mate. He strikes me as coming the gentleman a trifle, don't he, Duckling?"
To which the other replied, "He seems a civil-spoken young man, and up to his work. But I guess there's too much molasses mixed with his blood to suit my book. He wants a New Orleans training, as my old skipper used to say. Do you know what that means, sir?" evidently addressing the pilot. "Well, it means a knife in your ribs when you're not disposed to hurry, and a knuckle-duster in the shape of a marlin-spike down your throat if you stop to arguefy."
The pilot laughed and said, "Here's your health, sir. Men of your kind are wanted nowadays, sir."
It was plain from this speech that the pilot had exchanged his tea for something stronger. The captain here began to speak, but I couldn't catch his words, though I strained my ears, as I was anxious to gain all the insight I could into his character that I might know how to shape my behaviour.
I say this for a very weighty reason—I was entirely dependent on the profession I had adopted. I knew it was in the power of any captain I sailed with to injure me, and perhaps ruin my prospects. Everything in seafaring life depends upon reports and testimonials; and in these days, when the demand for officers is utterly disproportionate to the immense supply, owners are only too willing to listen to objections, and take any skipper's word as an excuse to decline your services or get rid of you.
Neither the captain nor Mr. Duckling appeared on deck again. The pilot came up shortly after one bell (half-past eight) and looked about him for a few minutes. The tide had swung the ship with her stern up Channel. He went and looked over the side, and then had a stare at Deal, but took no notice of me, whom he could very plainly see, and returned below.
I lingered three quarters of an hour on deck, during which time the little sigh of wind that had come from the south-west died out, and a most perfect calm fell. The larger stars burned with amazing brilliancy and power, and I thought it possible that the wind might go to the eastward. This idea detained me on deck longer than I had meant to stop, as I thought it would do me no ill service if I should be the first to report a fair wind to the skipper, and show myself smart in getting the hands up. Perhaps the moon would bring a breeze with her, and as she rose at twenty minutes past nine, I filled another pipe to await her coming.
As I struck a match, the steward came half-way up the poop-ladder to tell me that the spirits were on the table.
"Did the captain send you?" I asked.
"No, sir," he answered. "I