THE BLUE PAVILIONS
That same afternoon, at four o'clock, Captain Barker and Captain Runacles entered Harwich and advanced up the West Street side by side. Each had a bulky letter in his side-pocket, and the address upon each letter was the same. They talked but little.
On the right-hand side of West Street, as you enter the town, and a hundred yards or more from the town gate, there stood at that time a two-storeyed house of more pretensions than its fellows—from which it drew back somewhat. A line of railings, covered with ironwork of a florid and intricate pattern, but greatly decayed, shut it off from the roadway. The visitor, on opening the broad iron gate over which this pattern culminated in the figure of a Triton blowing a conch-shell, found himself in a pebbled court and before a massive front-door.
Neglect hung visibly over house and court alike as the two captains entered by the iron gate and looked around them with more trepidation than they had ever displayed in action. Grass sprouted between the pebbles and a greenish stain lay upon the flagstones. The drab frontage was similarly streaked; dust and rain together had set a crust upon the windows, and tufts of dark mossy grass again flourished in the gutter-pipes beneath the eaves.
Surveying this desolation, Captain Jemmy uttered a grunt and Captain John a "p'sh!" They fumbled in their pockets, drew out their two letters, and moved to the blistered front-door. A bell-pull, as rusty as the railings outside, depended by the jamb. Captain Jemmy tugged at it. It was noteworthy that whenever any effort had to be put forth, however small, the tall man stepped forward and the hunchback looked on. It was Captain Jemmy, for instance, who had, a moment before, pushed back the gate.
He had to tug thrice before a discordant bell sounded within the house, and twice again before footsteps began to shuffle along the passage.
A bolt was let down and the big door fell open, disclosing a small serving-girl, who stared upon the visitors with round eyes.
"Is your mistress within?"
"Mistress Salt is within, sirs; but—"
"She—she can't see you!" The girl burst into tears.
"Who the devil asked her to see us?" rapped out Captain Barker.
"You are to take these two letters," interposed Captain Runacles. Each captain held out his letter. "You are to take these two—blow your nose and dry your eyes—letters to your mistress at once—mind you, at once—and together—together, you understand, and—what in thunder are you whimpering about?"
"I c-c-can't, sirs."
"Can't! Why, in the name of—don't drip on 'em, I tell you! Why, in the name of—"
The iron gate creaked behind them, and the two captains turned their heads. A portly, broad-shouldered gentleman, in a suit of snuff colour, came slowly across the court, with both hands behind him, and a cane rapping against his heels.
"Hey? Why—Captain Barker! Captain Runacles! Glad to see you both—glad to see you both home again! Also I'd be glad to know what you're both doing here, at such a time."
The captains looked at each other and coughed. They turned towards the doorway. The serving-girl had disappeared, taking their letters with her. Captain Barker faced round upon the Doctor.
"You said 'at such a time,' sir."
"And why not at this time, as well as another?"
"God bless me! Is it possible you don't know?"
"It is not only possible, but certain."
The Doctor bent his head, pointed up at a window, and whispered; then went softly up the three steps into the house.
He left the two friends staring at each other. They stood and stared at each other for three minutes or more. Then Captain Barker spoke in a hoarse whisper.
"Jemmy, do you know anything about this—this kind of business?"
"Nothing. I was abroad, you know, when my own little maid—"
"Yes, I remember. But I thought, perhaps—say, I can't go home till—till I've seen the Doctor again."
A dull moan sounded within the house.
"Oh, my God!" groaned Captain Runacles; "Meg—Meg!"
A lattice was opened softly above them and the doctor leant out.
"Go away—you two!" he whispered and waved his hand towards the gate.
"H'sh! I'll come and tell you when it's over. Where shall you be?"
"At the Three Crowns, down the street here."
The lattice was closed again very gently. Captain Barker laid his hand upon the tall man's sleeve.
"Jemmy, we're out of this action. I thought I knew what it meant to lay-to and have to look on while a fight went forward; but I didn't. Come—"
They passed out of the courtyard and down the street towards the Three Crowns. Beneath the sign of that inn there lounged a knot of officers wearing the flesh-coloured facings of the Buffs, and within a young baritone voice was uplifted and trolling, to the accompaniment of clinking glasses, a song of Mr. Shirley's:
You virgins that did late despair
There was one sitting-room but no bedroom to be had at the Three Crowns. So they ordered up a dinner which they could not touch, but sat over in silence for two weary hours, drinking very much more burgundy than they were aware of. Captain Jemmy, taking up three bottles one after another and finding them all empty, ordered up three more, and drew his chair up to the hearth, where he sat kicking the oaken logs viciously with his long legs. The little hunchback stared out on the falling night, rang for candles, and began to pace the room like a caged beast.
Before midnight Captain Runacles was drunk. Six fresh bottles stood on the table. The man was a cask. Even in the warm firelight his face was pale as a sheet, and his lips worked continually.
Captain Barker still walked up and down, but his thin legs would not always move in a straight line. His eyes glared like two globes of green fire, and he began to knock against the furniture. Few men can wait helplessly and come out of it with credit. Every time Captain John hit himself against the furniture Captain Jemmy cursed him.
Tie up in silk your careless hair;
—Sang the little man, in a rasping voice. "Your careless hair," he hiccoughed; "your careless hair, Meg!"
Then he sat down on the floor and laughed to himself softly, rocking his distorted body to and fro.
"Bah!" said his friend, without looking round. "You're drunk." And he poured out more burgundy. He was outrageously drunk himself, but it only affected his temper, not his wits.
"Meg," he said, "will live. What's more, she'll live to marry me."
"She won't. She'll die. Hist! there's a star falling outside."
He picked himself up and crawled upon the window-seat, clutching at the red curtains to keep his footing.
"Jemmy, she'll die! What was it that old fool said to-day? The door's closing on us both. To think of our marching up, just now, with those two letters; and the very sun in heaven cracking his cheeks with laughter at us—us two poor scarecrows making love thirty years after the time!"
His wry head dropped forward on his chest.
After this the two kept silence. The rest of the house had long since gone to rest, and the sound of muffled snoring alone marked the time as it passed, except when Captain Jemmy, catching up another oak log, drove it into the fire with his heel; or out in the street the watch went by, chanting the hour; or a tipsy shouting broke out in some distant street, or the noise of dogs challenging each other from their kennels across the sleeping town.
A shudder of light ran across the heavens, and over against the window Captain Barker saw the east grow pale. For some while the stars had been blotted out and light showers had fallen at intervals. Heavy clouds were banked across the river, behind Shotley; and the roofs began to glisten as they took the dawn.
Footsteps sounded on the roadway outside. He pushed open the window and looked out. Doctor Beckerleg was coming up the street, his hat pushed back and his neckcloth loosened as he respired the morning air.
The footsteps paused underneath, by the inn door; but the little Captain leant back in the window-seat without making a sign. He had seen the Doctor's face. Before the fire Captain Jemmy brooded, with chin on breast, hands grasping the chair-rail and long legs stretched out, one on each side of the hearth. The knocking below did not rouse him from this posture, nor the creaking of feet on the stairs.
Doctor Beckerleg stood in the doorway and for a moment contemplated the scene—the empty bottles, the unsnuffed candles guttering down upon the table, and the grey faces of both drunken men. Then he turned and whispered a word to the drawer, who had hurried out of bed to admit him and now stood behind his shoulder. The fellow shuffled downstairs.
Captain Barker struggled with a question that was dried up in his throat. Before he could get it out the Doctor shook his head.
"She is dead," he announced, very gravely and simply.
The hunchback shivered. Captain Runacles neither spoke nor stirred in his chair.
"A man-child was born at two o'clock. He is alive: his mother died two hours later."
Captain Barker shivered again, plucked aimlessly at a rosette in the window-cushion, and stole a quick glance at his comrade's back. Then, putting a finger to his lip, he slid down to the floor and lurched across to the Doctor.
"She was left penniless?" he whispered.
"That, or almost that, 'tis said," replied Dr. Beckerleg in the same key, though the question obviously surprised him. "Her father left his money to the town, as all know—"
"Yes, yes; I knew that. Her husband—"
"Hadn't a penny-piece, I believe: pawned her own mother's jewels and gambled 'em away; thereupon left her, as a dog his cleaned bone."
The little man laid a hand on his collar, and as the doctor stooped whispered low and rapidly in his ear.
Their colloquy was interrupted.
"I'll adopt that child!" said Captain Runacles from the hearth. He spoke aloud, but without turning his head.
Captain Barker hopped round, as if a pin were stuck into him.
"You!—adopt Meg's boy!"
"I said that."
"But you won't."
"I'm sorry to disappoint you, Jemmy; but I intend to adopt him myself."
"I know it. You were whispering as much to the Doctor there."
"You have a little girl already."
"Precisely. That's where the difference comes in. This one, you'll note, is a boy."
"A child of your own!"
"But not of Meg's."
Captain Runacles turned in his chair as he said this, and, reaching a hand back to the table, drained the last bottle of burgundy into his glass. His face was white as a sheet and his jaw set like iron. "But not of Meg's," he repeated, lifting the glass and nodding over it at the pair.
His friend swayed into a chair and sat facing him, his chin but just above the table and his green eyes glaring like an owl's.
"Jemmy Runacles, I adopt that boy!"
"You're cursedly obstinate, Jack."
"Having adopted him, I shall at once quit my profession and devote the residue of my life to his education. For a year or two—that is, until he reaches an age susceptible of tuition—I shall mature a scheme of discipline, which—"
"My dear sir," the Doctor interposed, "surely all this is somewhat precipitate."
"Not at all. My resolution was taken the instant you entered the room."
"That hardly seems to me to prove—"
The little man waved aside the interruption and continued: "Tristram—for I shall have him christened by that name—"
"He'll be called Jeremiah," decided Captain Runacles shortly.
"I've settled upon Tristram. The name is a suitable one, and signifies that its wearer is a child of sorrow."
"Jeremiah also suggests lamentations, and has the further merit of being my own name."
"Gentlemen, gentlemen," cried Dr. Beckerleg, "would it not be as well to see the infant?"
"I can imagine," Captain Barker answered, "nothing in the infant that is likely to shake my resolution. My scheme of discipline will be based—"
"Decidedly, Jack, I shall have to run you through," said his friend gloomily. Indeed, the Doctor stood in instant fear of this catastrophe; for Captain Runacles' temper was a byword, and not even his customary dark flush looked so dangerous as the lustreless, sullen eyes now sunk in a face that was drawn and pinched and absolutely wax-like in colour. To the Doctor's astonishment, however, it was the little hunchback who now jumped up and whipped out his sword.
"Run me through!" he almost screamed, dancing before the other and threatening him with absurd flourishes—"Run me through?"
"Listen, gentlemen; listen, before blood is spilt! To me it appears evident that you are both drunk."
"To me that seems an advantage, since it equalises matters."
"But whichever of you survives, he will be unable to forgive himself; having sinned not only against God, but also against logic."
"How against logic?"
"Permit me to demonstrate. Mrs. Salt, whom (as I well know) you esteemed, is lost to you; and in her place is left a babe whom— healthy though he undoubtedly is—you cannot possibly esteem without taking a great deal for granted, especially as you have not yet set eyes on him. Now it is evident that, if one of you should kill the other, a second life of approved worth will be sacrificed for an infant of purely hypothetical merits. As a man of business I condemn the transaction. As a Christian I deprecate the shedding of blood. But if somebody's blood must be shed, let us be reasonable and kill the baby!"
Captain Barker lowered his point.
"Decidedly the question is more difficult than I imagined."
"At least it cannot be settled before eating," said Dr. Beckerleg, as the drawer entered with a tray. "You will forgive me that I took the liberty of ordering breakfast as soon as I looked into this room. Without asking to see your tongues, I prescribed dried herrings and home-brewed ale; for myself, a fried sole, a beef-steak reasonably under-done, a kidney-pie which the drawer commended on his own motion, with a smoked cheek of pork, perhaps—"
"You wish us to sit still while you devour all this?"
"I am willing to give each side of the argument a fair chance."
"But I find nothing to argue about!" exclaimed Captain Runacles, pushing his plate from him after a very faint attempt to eat. "My mind being already made up—"
"And mine," interrupted Captain Barker.
"If I suggest that both of you adopt the child," Dr. Beckerleg begun.
"Still he must be educated; and our notions of education differ. Moreover, when we differ—as you may have observed—we do so with some thoroughness."
"Let me propose, then, a system of alternation, by which you could adopt the boy for six months each, turn and turn about."
"But if—as would undoubtedly happen—each adoptive parent spent his six months in undoing the other's work, it must follow that, at the end of any given period, the child's mind would be a mere tabula rasa. Suppose, on the other hand, we failed to wipe out each other's teaching, the unfortunate youth would be launched upon life with half his guns pointed inboard and his needle jerking from one pole to the other. Consider the name, Jeremiah Tristram!"
"It is heterogeneous," admitted the Doctor.
"He would be called Tristram Jeremiah," Captain Barker put in.
"Well, but that is not less heterogeneous. O wise Solomon!" cried the Doctor, with his mouth full of kidney-pie; "had I but the authority you enjoyed in a like dispute, I would resign to you all the credit of originality!"
"As it is, however, you are wasting our time, and it becomes clear that we must fight, after all."
"By no means; for I have this moment received an inspiration. Drawer!"
The drawer answered this summons almost before it was uttered, by appearing in the doorway with a dish of eggs and a fresh tankard.
"Set the dish down and attend," commanded Dr. Beckerleg. "You have a dice-box and dice in the house?"
"No, sir. His worship the Mayor—"
"My good fellow, the regulations against play in this town are well known to me; also that the Crowns is an orderly house. Let me suggest, then, that you have several gentlemen of the army lodging under this roof; that one of these, if politely asked, might own that he had come across such a thing as a dice-box during his sojourn in the Low Countries. It may even be that in the sack of some unpronounceable town or other he has acquired a specimen, and is bringing it home in his valise to exhibit it to his family. Be so good as to inform him that three gentlemen, in Room No. 6, who are about to write a tractate on the amusements of the Dutch—"
"By your leave, sir, I don't know how it may be on campaign; but in this house we never awaken a soldier for any reason which he cannot grasp at once."
"In that case let him have his sleep out before you vex him with our apologies. But meanwhile bring the dice."
The fellow went out, whispered to the chamber-maid, and returned in less than five minutes with a pair of dice and a leathern box much worn with use.
"They belong," he whispered, "to a young gentleman of the Admiral's regiment, who was losing heavily last night."
"Thank you; they are the less likely to be loaded. You may retire for a while. My friends," the Doctor continued, as soon as they were alone, "Aristotle invented Chance to account for the astonishing fact that there were certain things in the world which he could not explain. I appeal to it for as cogent a reason. Indeed, had Mistress Margaret—whose soul God has this night resumed—had she, I say, been spared to receive and ponder the two letters which I saw you deliver at her door; and had she invited me, as a tried friend, to decide between them, I feel sure I should have ended by putting a dice-box into her hands. Do not blush. No true man need blush that he has loved such a woman: and you are both true men, if a trifle obstinate—justi et tenaces propositi. Men of your character, Flaccus tells us, do not blench at the thunderbolts of Jove himself; and truly, I can well imagine his missile fizzing harmlessly into your party hedge, unable to decide between the pavilion of Captain John and the pavilion of Captain Jeremy. But Chance, being witless, discriminates without trouble; and because she is blind, her arbitraments offend nobody's sensibility. Do you consent?"
The two captains looked at the dice-box and nodded.
"One throw," said Captain Runacles.
"And the highest cast to win," added Captain Barker.
"You, Captain Barker, are the senior by a year, I believe. Will you throw first?"
The little man caught up the box, rattled the dice briskly, and threw—four and three.
Captain Runacles picked them up, and made his cast deliberately—six and ace.
"Gentlemen, you must throw again. Fortune herself seems to hesitate between you."
Captain Barker threw again, and leant back with a sob of triumph.
"Two sixes, upon my soul!" murmured the Doctor.
"I'm afraid, Captain Jeremy—" Captain Jeremy took the dice up, turned them between finger and thumb, and dropped them slowly into the box. As he lifted his hand to make the cast he looked up and saw the gleam in his friend's greenish eyes.
The next moment box and dice flew past the hunchback's head and out at the open window.
"That's my throw," Captain Runacles announced, standing up and turning his back on the pair as he staggered across the room for his hat. But the little man also had bounced up in a fury.
"That's a vile trick! I make the best throw, and you force me to fight."
"Ah," said the other, facing slowly about and putting on his hat. "I didn't see it in that light. Very well, Jack, I decline to fight you."
The little man held out a hand. "I might have known, Jemmy, you were too good a fellow—" he began.
"Oh, stow away your pretty speeches and take back your hand. I can't prevent your playing the fool with Meg's child; but if I had a decent excuse, you may make up your mind I'd use it. As it is, the sight of you annoys me. Good morning!"
He went out, slamming the door after him, and they heard him descend the stairs and turn down the street.
"A day's peace," mused Captain Barker, "strikes me as more expensive than a year's war. It has cost me my two dearest friends."
He strode up and down the room muttering angrily; then looked up and said:
"Take me to Meg; I want to see her."
"And the child?"
"To be sure. I'd clean forgotten the child."
Dr. Beckerleg led the way downstairs. A pale sunshine touched the edge of the pavement across the road, and while Captain Barker was settling the bill, the doctor stepped across and picked a dice-box out of the gutter.
"Luckily I found the dice, too; they were lying close together," said he, as his companion came out. He turned the box round and appeared to be reflecting; but next moment walked briskly into the bar and returned the dice to the drawer, with a small fee.
"She is not much changed?" asked the Captain, as they moved down the street arm in arm.
"Eh? You were saying? No, not changed. A beautiful face."
Though middle-aged and lined with trouble it was, as Dr. Beckerleg said, a beautiful face that slept behind the dusty window above the court where the sparrows chattered. From a chamber at the back of the house the two men were met, as they climbed the stairs, by the sound of an infant's wailing. Dr. Beckerleg went towards this, after opening for the Captain the door of a room wherein no sound was at all.
When, half an hour later, Captain Barker came out and closed this door gently, Dr. Beckerleg, who waited on the landing, forbore to look a second time at his face. Instead he stared fixedly at the staircase wall and observed:
"I think it is time we turned our attention upon the child."
"Take me to him by all means."
Margaret's son was reclining, very red and angry, in the arms of an old woman who attempted vainly to soothe him by tottering up and down the room as fast as her decrepit legs would carry her. The serving-girl, who had opened the door on the previous evening, stood beside the window, her eyes swollen with weeping.
"He is extremely small," said the Captain.
"On the contrary, he is an unusually fine boy."
"He appears to me to want something."
"He wants food."
"Bless my soul! Has none been offered to him?"
"Yes; but he refuses it."
"Not at all. I understand—do I not?—that you have adopted this infant."
The Captain nodded.
"Then your parental duties have already begun. You must come with me at once and choose a wet nurse."
As they passed through the hall to the front-door, Captain Barker perceived two letters lying side by side upon a table there. He snatched them up hastily and crammed one into his pocket. Then, handing the other to Dr. Beckerleg:
"You might give that to Jemmy when you see him, and—look here, as soon as the child is out of the house, I think—if you went to Jemmy—he might like to see Meg, you know."