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I TAKE COMMAND.
I Was awakened by a sharp, persistent knocking on my cabin-door. "Who is there % " I called out, scarcely yet awake.
"The crew wants a word with ye, sir," exclaimed a deep-throated voice outside.
"Eh, what's that ] " I cried, instantly startled into broad wakefulness.
"The crew 'ud be glad to have a talk with ye, sir," repeated the leather-lunged voice, the tones of which, though I might have had some memory of them had I heard them on deck, sounded most harshly unfamiliar, even malevolent, in the privacy and retirement of these after-cabins.
"All right," I exclaimed; "give me a minute or two to dress. Who are you]"
"Terence Mole, sir."
"Ha !" said I, "and where are the others %"
"All of 'em in the cabin, saving the chap at the wheel, and Charles, who's keeping a look-out."
There was broad daylight on the ocean, as a glance through the scuttle assured me; the flash of sunlight came to the glass of the screwed-up port in a fine-weather tremble off the waters, with a mingling of atmospheric blueness that made one know there was plenty of clear sky overhead. It
No. 355.—Vol. Lx.
was natural that I should wonder with all my might what the crew could want with me as I dressed myself, but not hastily; for let what might have happened, I was resolved to oppose an aspect at least of composure to whatever might befall, and the first condition of dignity was a leisurely observance of the wish of the crew to see me. I looked at my watch, punctually timed by every day's meridian, and found the hour ten minutes to five. I dressed myself fully, lingering to wash my face and hands and brush my hair; trifling things to talk about indeed, but useful to recall as an instance at all events of selfcontrol, which to this day I am proud to remember; for let me tell you, knowing the posture of the men as I did, it was enough to throw a heartier mind than mine off its balance, to be suddenly aroused from a deep sleep by the wooden knuckles of a sailor, and to collect with a half-conscious ear from his harsh, gruff accents that the seamen of the brig wanted a word with me.
I stepped into the little passage with a glance at Miss Grant's door, which was closed, though I had no doubt she was wide awake within and had overheard the sailors' message to me. There were eight men in the cabin, four of them seated at the table; the tall seaman, Terence Mole, leaned against a stancheon with his arms, naked to the elbows, folded
upon his breast; the sixth—the cook —squatted at the foot of the companion-steps; two others marched to and fro with their hands buried in their breeches-pockets, but came to a halt when they saw me. The novelty of the sight of these rough fellows seated or lounging about an interior which I, with a sailor's experiences in me, knew that at ordinary times they would think of, in their own sea-parlour, as a sort of holy ground in which no foremast Jack was ever to be heard of, unless he came to catch a pig or to holystone the deck of it, was, I protest, as much a shock in its way as if one of the men had saluted my approach with a levelled pistol. The eastern sunshine streamed upon the skylight, and the place was full of the brilliance of the morning. I noticed a sort of haggard, worried look in two or three of the hairy, weather-lined faces. Used as I was to their attire of duck-breeches, loose shirts, Scotch and other caps, and half-boots—though some of them were unshod—yet the mere presence of them in the cabin rendered their garb as strange in my sight as if I had never beheld it before; and I seemed to find in the first presentment of them the most genuine imaginable aspect of outlawry, abominably in conformity with every fancy, recollection, or imagination of mutiny that could occur to an observer. The fellows who were seated at the table rose when I entered: Mole quitted his lounging attitude; and the cook, a stout, pale, sandy-haired man, writhed himself on to his feet off the ladder. I came to a stand a foot or two in advance of the doorway which conducted to the after-berths, that Miss Grant might hear what I said, and gather from my language the import of the speech of the others if their syllables should not be always audible to her. "What is it, men!" I said. Mole dropped his folded arms, and passed the back of one great hand in a sort of smearing gesture, awkward yet defiant, across his forehead,
over which his hair lay thick as a mat to his eyebrows.
"We've thought it proper to tell you, sir," he exclaimed, "that the capt'n's a-missing."
"Missing!" I cried; "since when, do you know 1"
The cook came forward, and said in a wheezy voice, striking his chest asthough he had taken a chill there: "I was on dooty, 'cording to Captain Broadwater's orders, till midnight; then I thumped him up with a handspike, his instructions being I wasn't to leave the deck on any account till he came. Well, he arrived, and J went forrards and tarned in. At four, Mole here came to say that the capt'n must have gone below, as nothen was to'be seen of him. I says, 'That's odd, ain't itl* I says, 'an' he sopertikler!' Jim here had had the wheel since four bells, and I ask him if he'd seen aught of the capt'n, and he says that at six bells the skipper looked into the binnacle, and then went forrards again out of sight, for it had been as black all night as if a man had gone dark hisself, and aiter that I saw no more of him."
"All that's right enough," said the sailor, to whom the cook referred.
"Have you looked for him 1" said I quietly, for a sense of deep insincerity in all this business was creeping into me, spite of the cook talking like an honest man on his oath.
"Everywhere saving them there cabins," answered Mole, pointing with his muscular arm, blue with devices, to the after-berths.
"There are but two cabins vacant," said I; "come with me and look for yourself."
I threw open the door of the berth in which were our private stock of provisions, then the door confronting it, and motioning Mole to precede me, returned to where I had before been standing.
"Of course you have searched his own berth and those near it 1" said I.
"First and foremost of all, naturally," responded Mole.
"What is your notion of the matter 1" I asked.
Three of them answered together, "He's overboard." Mole added, "Ne'er a doubt of it. It's all hands' opinion. He wasn't a man to hide himself; why should he 1" The half-caste Ladova laughed in his throat. "If he's aboard," continued Mole, "we should have found him. We've so overhauled the old hooker that had he been a rat we must have come across him. Ain't that right, lads?"
"Ay, ay," came the reply in a short growl from them all, and the cook in his wheezy voice added, "If he ben't gone to keep poor Billy company my eyes ain't mates."
The suspicion of the insincerity of all this had now grown into a strong conviction that some black deed had been done since I took my last view of Broadwater as he clambered up the companion-steps. But along with this conviction there came also clear perception that I must not by word or look betray the merest phantom of my thoughts, otherwise I should be held as an incriminating witness, and dealt with as one, I had no doubt. My secret agitation was already sufficiently great to render the assumption of an air of consternation easy. I looked from one to another and cried: "Though I never liked the captain, men; though I don't mind saying now that he was one of the most tyrannical and ill-mannered shipmasters I ever met or heard of in my life, yet his disappearance is a blow to the lady and myself. The brig is now without a commander, without a mate, without even a bo'sun. How, think you, did Captain Broadwater meet his end? Was it an accident, do you suppose 1 He could not have walked overboard." I shook my head. "My lads," I said solemnly, "I don't doubt but that he committed suicide. He was as a madman all day yesterday—■ charged me, men, me," I cried, striking my breast with a passionate gesture, "with a desire to work up a mutiny aboard 1 A madman, mv lads! a
drunken lunatic! Not a shadow of doubt but he destroyed himself in his watch on deck, urged overboard, maybe, by the recollection of Gordon and the poor lad and your two shipmates —of all four of whom he has gone before his God as surely the murderer as if he had slit the throat of every man of them with his own hand."
"Mates," cried Mole, tossing his head to clear the hair out of his eyes, and sending a fiery glance from one to another of the seamen, "Mr. Musgrave's put it as there's ne'er a man of us could have said it. I've been a seafaring man eighteen year, man and boy, in all sorts of craft, from the likes of this snorter "—he spat upon the deck—" away up to the Atlantic clippers; but of all capt'ns—" he raised his arm, with a face that darkened to the sudden fierce restraint he put upon himself; "but he's gone," he added, letting his hand fall; "committed suicide, as you say, sir; a thing most sartin—past all doubting, in fact; and here we are, Mr. Musgrave, to find out what's to do."
I could see with half an eye that the impression I had sought to produce was made. I thrust my hands in a careless sort of way into my breechespockets, and fell to pacing the deck. "One thing," I exclaimed, "has followed so fast on top of another, that though there ought to be something staggering in Captain Broadwater's suicide, I find," I said, with a halflaugh, and a shrug of the shoulders, "that it scarcely so much as surprises me. But," I continued, addressing Mole, "you ask what's to be done? Have you and your mates a scheme 1"
"Well," he answered, speaking with return to his first awkward, defiant manner, "when these men and me, after giving the brig a thorough overhaul, was agreed that the skipper was gone, we tamed to and asked one another what was to be done. It didn't need much debating. It's been onderstood all aloDg forrards that you were a sailor yourself equal to navigating a ship, and so of course we at once settled upon asking you to take charge."
I nodded, taking care to preserve a careless manner to guard against exposure of the worry in me that grew more and more consuming as I listened.
"You will take charge, sir?" said Mole interrogatively.
"Certainly, if you wish it," said I.
He looked round at the others with a faint inclination of his head, and continued, revolving his cap in his hand with his eyes upon it, "Next consideration was, where to go." He looked up at me without seeming to lift his eyelids
"Where to go I" I cried, startled out of my feigned posture of indifference by the fellow's words. "We're bound to Rio. Shall we not proceed there?"
Every man of them wagged his head with a sort of groaning "No! no! no!" full of an unmistakable note of emphasis.
"We're all resolved not to sail the brig to Rio," said Mole, in an aggressive way that was like a surly hint to me not to argue the point; "we've been turning the matter over, and as we larnt from Mr. Gordon yesterday that our latitude was a few degrees to the norrards of twenty, we've settled to ask you to navigate the Iron Crown to the West Indies."
"The West Indies! You are naming a number of islands which cover a wide area of ocean," I answered coldly; for it had come to me like an inspiration that, if I valued my own and Miss Grant's safety, I must consent to do these men's bidding without so much ns even a falter in the speech in which I assented; that practically the brig was theirs, and I and my companion absolutely in their power; and that my sole policy was to appear as though I was willing to be of them, though my approach must exhibit a little natural hesitation. "What part of— what island in the West Indies have you in your mind?"
"Neighbourhood of Cuba," answered one of the men.
"Bill, leave it to me if you please," exclaimed Mole, turning upon the speaker with a frown. "Our notion is, sir," he continued, addressing me with a touch of respect in his manner that was not a little welcome, "that you should navigate the brig towards the island of Cuba, and give us notice when we're within a day's sail of it. Mr. Musgrave," he continued, flinging down his cap, extending his left hand and resting the fist of the right one in it, "you've been a sailor yourself— you've seen what we've suffered—you onderstand the situation we're in—let it, sir, as between seafaring men, be all plain sailing between you and us. There's been murder done aboard this here craft as you know, sir; and," he proceeded deliberately, almost grinding out the words as he delivered them, "we don't intend the man as made away with Mr. Bothwell shall be took. We don't want no interference. We don't intend that the Iron Crown shall be boarded. We don't mean to be laid hold of, and charged with mutineering, and punished for it. D'ye see that, Mr. Musgrave? We've got no idea of coming to any sort of harm that we can provide against. What's done's done I Nothen's happened but what's been desarved, sir—by God, desarved, mates!" he almost roared out, striking his fist violently into the palm of his hand; then suddenly folding his arms upon his breast, he added, in a changed voice charged with menace, "That's the situation, sir, and we want to know if you'll help us."
"On certain conditions," said I.
"What'll they be?" he exclaimed, quickly and suspiciously.
I surveyed him a moment whilst I thought, then held up one finger and said: "The lady must have the same privileges of privacy which she has enjoyed down to the present moment."
He took a view of the others, and bringing his eyes slowly to mine said: "The lady'll have no call to be afraid of us, sir. She'll find us sailors and men." A grunt of assent from the others followed this.
"Thank you for saying so," said I; "if ever a woman deserved the kindness of a crew she does. Her heart has been with you from the beginning in your troubles."
"Yes, by the Virgin, that's true!" cried the half-caste Ladova, fetching the table a blow with his fist.
"As consarns the lady, sir," said Mole, "set your mind at ease. What's your other conditions?"
"I must, with her, have the exclusive use of this cabin."
One of them cried, "You're welcome enough to it. The fok'sle's good enough for poor sailor men."
"It's as Thomas there says," exclaimed Mole; "the fok'sle's good enough for us. We don't want no cabin. What's your other conditions?"
"I have named them all," I answered. "You'll provide, I suppose, for our comfort here—tell some one of you off to bring our meals along?"
"You'll see to that, cook," said Mole, turning upon him.
"Ay," exclaimed the other, "that'll be all right, sir. The food'll be cooked as afore, and sarved as afore, if it comes to my having to wait on ye myself."
"Men," said I, "I can expect no more, and I am satisfied. You have met me fairly and spoken to me honestly; and whilst you continue faithful to the understanding that now exists between us, you'll find me as staunch as if I had been one of you from the beginning, and the most illused of you, too. There are two men on deck—you answer for it that they will be satisfied with our arrangement?"
"Yes," answered Mole, "specially may Charles be answered for. A man whose soul has turned black inside him, as his has, by the shadder o' the gallows, ain't going to be very exacting in his arrangements to get rid of the cuss. Charles will agree, sir; so will t'other."
"Be it so," said I; "and now I'll step into the captain's cabin for a
sight of his charts and the log-book there, that I may shape a course to Cuba. That's it, I think?"
"Right, sir," exclaimed Mole. Then looking at the others he said: "Lads, there's nothing I've forgot to say, is there?."
There was some scratching of heads and shuffling of feet, and then one said, "No, everything's been said, Terry, I think;" and another, "Mr. Musgrave consents to take command, and steer the vessel for Cuba, giving us a day's notice of its heaving into view, and I don't know that there's anything more that we wanted to see him about;" but a third cried, "Ay, but Mr. Musgrave '11 want some one to stand watch and watch with him. Who's to do it?"
"You're capt'n now, sir," said Mole, rounding upon me, but speaking very civilly; "it's for you to choose one of us to act as your mate. The crew'll be satisfied with your choice, no matter who you fix upon."
"Then," said I, " Mr. Mole, I choose you."
The calling him "mister" set the whole of the fellows on the broad grin.
"Very well, sir," said Mole. "Lads, ye can get forrards now. I'll keep 'a look-out, capt'n, ontil ye come up." Secretly confounded and dismayed as I was by all this business, yet his calling me "captain" made me smile spite of myself, as the others had on my terming him " mister." A general laugh followed, but nothing more was said as the whole body of them went quietly up the ladder and disappeared through the companion-hatch.
I stood a moment or two grasping a stancheon, with a hand to my forehead, oppressed by such a sense of bewilderment that was as sickening in its way as a bad fit of giddiness. But I rallied swiftly, and observing Miss Grant's door to remain closed, stepped at once to the cabin that had been occupied by Broadwater. I entered it with no small feeling of awe. That he had been foully made away with I