“WHEN a man ’s married, he’s safe in port.” Captain Pratt whirled the whiskey-tansan in his glass, cocked his bright blue eyes at the seething heel-tap, then added, “And paying pilotage.”
We sat visiting aboard the Mindoro, Coast-Guard cutter, in the enchanted harbor of Romblon. She had looked in at daylight, we had rowed over for breakfast, and now sat comforting her commander. A pair of linked murderers, guarded by two of the constabulary, had clanked aboard, bound for Manila to hear confirmation of their sentence of death. All four lay huddled aft, — constabulary distinguished from murderers by their khaki, Krags, and conscious virtue. All subtler points of difference favored the plain homicides. The provincial treasurer, who should have charge of them, had not yet come on board. He was newly married; he was perhaps an hour late; and Captain Milbank of the cutter, who was losing his ebb, had just described the treasurer’s bride in terms which we hoped were not true.
“And towage,” continued Captain Pratt, winking craftily. As the only one to laugh, he explained: “D’ye see? Signifying his troubles have just begun. So they have, be-’anged. Look, would ye, at Merriwether o’ the Sui-Jin. How used he go out o’ Cebu harbor ? North passage, o’ course, because it’s quicker. How does he go out now, as a bloomin’ bridegroom? South passage, be-’anged, because it’s safer. Safer! Ha!”
The little captain’s metallic laugh of scorn waked even the murderers from their siesta.
“And they lived happy ever after!” he jeered. “My word! — And there was Harry Benbow, too, mind ye. He was Scott-Newnes agent at Carigao: and a fust-chop agent, that run the Tabacalera out o’ business there afore you blasted Yankees knowed the Philippynes was charted. Such ’orsepital ways he had, too. Harry Benbow’s house was a fair chummery, a —a club, be-George, known and respected from here to Amoy and Singapore. Land there night or day, you’d find it full blast. ’T was Hoobloomin’-ray! and‘Dear old chap, glad to see ye!’ and ‘Hallo, here’s Pratt again! ’ and ‘Sit in and take me hand this round, cap’n!’ and ‘Blast the bally cargo!’ and ‘ Uno, bring the señor his usual!’ And you’d be having such a happy time that you’d roll down the pantalan aboard ship thinking the Eldest Brother o’ Trinity House Corporation had dined the Fust Sea Lord.
“That was young Harry’s fashion, — his ’orsepital ways. Happy times, happy days!” Captain Pratt sighed. “Finish! Like the poem, ye know, —
To all fine things must be.
And the bloomin’ fact that spoiled Benbow for good and all was this same little girl that I’m going to tell ye about.”
The captain tilted down the last drop, bird-like; wiped his gray mutton-chop whiskers carefully; then, with sudden passion, dashed on the deck his best shoregoing hat.
Hang it all! When I think o’ the lights in that there blessed bungalow, and the cards, and the drinks, and the good chow, and singing, and — all Carigao used to mean — s’ help me, I could turn a bloomin’ Diogynist!
Christmas was frightful hot that year. Christmas! There ain’t no proper Christmas outside England. But that made no odds to Harry Benbow. What man could do, he done. Why, bless his heart! all us lonesome devils from four hundred miles roundabout, we’d come,as ye might say, to hang up of our stockings. That is, those that did n’t come limping barefoot with water-sores. ’T was hot and homesick outside; but inside the bungalow was well irrigated, and hung with bamboos for evergreens, and these red Flameo’-the-Forest for holly-berries. Harry Benbow’d got plum-pudding out from England, and roast beef in tins, and Dan Leno in the phonograph, and Bass in the barrel, and good Scotch, and ice by the picul. We got no harm, neither did we do any, — ’cept raising a bloody row. My word, the lights, and cards, and drinks, and lies, and good chow! Only one man under the table, and he was put there unanimous for swearing to do “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen,” all on his own, when Harry had n’t finished his speech yet.
“I had meant,” says Benbow, balancing on the table careful, “gentlemen, I had meant to gather all the European residents here on this happy festival, but I regret that the two pedagogues declined. However, I wish ’em both a Merry Christmas, wherever and however they may be celebrating. And now, for Christmas Eve I give ye the toast ‘Absent Friends!'”
Solemn enough we was all about to drink it, when in rushes a fair crazy man.
“Stop, gentlemen!” he hails us. He was lean, long-haired, hatchet-faced, mounted spectacles big as binoc’lars. And my word, the Yankee twang! —“Stop, gentlemen! There has been insurrection and abduction in our midst!” he says. “A delicate and refined lady,” he says, “whom any high-minded gentleman would be proud to rescue, has fallen into the hands of low-class villains! ” he says, or about those words. “To arms, and snatch her from peril!”
“Snatch a drink, old cock,” says Benbow. “Come join us. You’re heated.”
“Heated?” shouts the man in the spectacles. “Heated? My blood boils, sir! Sit down and drink now! Never, sir! — Why,” he says, “back in God’s country, sir, in Loosianah, the lowest beasts o’ the field would spring to arms, sir, to rescue female beauty. And you propose cold-hearted gluttony! Is it possible I’m addressing English gentlemen ? ”
Harry Benbow climbed down off the table, and spoke to him very polite and drawling: —
“I can answer for the character of my guests,” he says. “And there is no compulsion to drink with us. So will you kindly explain this — this unexpected contribution to our humble orat’ry?”
That cooled the other man down.
“My name, sir, is Jefferson Davis ’Iggins,”he says. “I have the privilege of instructing the native youth o’ Carigao. My message is that one Pablo Reyes, a pulajan chief, and his band of lawless, low-minded mountaineers, has looted the customs house. Worse than that, sir, he has abducted and carried off Miss Lucy Reade, from her own residence, sir!”
“By Jove, the little schoolmistress!” says Benbow. “There is some female beauty, if you like.” He pulls out his watch. “Uno! have Felician saddle all the ponies, and Ramon get out all the Company’s guns and ammunition. Sigue! . . . Now, Mr. ’Iggins, I understand your natural agitation. So take this glass, won’t you, and join us in drinking to Absent Friends. It’s Christmas Eve, after all, is n’t it ? We ’ll start in half an hour.”
“What?” he shouts. “Every second is precious. and you sit toasting! The man who hesitates to follow me at once, sir, is a coward. A white-livered toper, sir. You all hesitate ? You are all whitelivered topers!” He stared at us bitter. “ Very well. The Muse of History will record this night to your shame. I will save the lady single-’anded! ”
Out he rushes, and we heard him gallop out o’ compound.
“ Once more,” laughs Harry. “ Absent Friends!” When we’d all drunk it, he says, “What a Hotspur schoolmaster! He’s forgot you can’t ford the inlet till the tide’s half an hour out. Old Pablo’s made straight across it for the hills. He ’ll have smashed the ferry and cut all the bancas adrift, o’ course, way he did two years ago. We must give him a lesson this time. If our bold knight ’Iggins prefers waiting by the shore, it can’t be helped.”
In twenty minutes we all had a Duckand-Doris, and went spurring off to the ford. That is, they all spurred, and I could n’t stop my ’orrid pony. I’m not a bloomin’ centurion.
We found the schoolmaster by his noise o’ cursing, foundered down amongst the mud and quiapo. Then we crossed the inlet, — I could steer the ’orrid pony right with water under us onc’t, — and clawed up the bank. Then he pounded me sickening again till daylight in the morning, when the blessed hills slowed us all to a walk. Harry Benbow knowed all that country, d’ ye mind, and piloted us straight, be-George, as if he was walking through Poultry to the Bank.
He was cool, too, till all to onc’t, as we came sweating up a little rock path in an arroyo, — Bang! — A noise like smashed bottles all amongst us, and cut palmleaves comes a-twirling down overhead. “That gun kicked their bar down atop of us,” laughs Harry; then hops off his horse, stoops over, and holds up his hands full o’ broken green glass, swearing like a second mate.
“The little brown ”... And he spent some time calling ’em names their mothers never would claim ’em by. “This is serious. They’ve broke into the Company go-down. This ammunition is the ins’lators for my new telegraph line.”
“ Charge, charge! ” shouts Master ’Iggins. “ I demand a charge at once, — a frontal attack! ”
“Right-oh,” says Harry. “You can execute it.” And blow-me if the maestro did n’t run straight up the path. “The fool’s got pluck! ” says Benbow. He ploughed us in two. “ Left wing, follow him ! Right wing, come flanking with me.”
In ten minutes, s’ help me, we’d took that temp’rary citadel, capsized old Pablo hisself, and driven our brown brothers into the bosque. At sight o’ their cannon, Harry Benbow took on worse than before. It was a whacking big bamboo, seized round from breech to muzzle with new shiny wire.
“Three hundred feet o’ my line to Pacatlog!”he roars. “The little brown” —
“Easy does it,” I whispers. “Lady present.”
And there under a bloomin’ hemp tree, the coolest member o’ the party, sat this little girl I been telling ye about.
She was pale, but quite the lady. Big soft brown eyes, like a cow’s. (What ye snickling at ? My word, cow’s eyes is pretty. Have n’t seen a proper cow since I was a boy, at Home, ’cept their pictures on the condensed labels. Australia steers be-’anged! I mean a proper cow.) They was big, and grave, and — melting. Harry forgot all about his wire.
“Thank you very much for coming after me,” she says, in a nice enough little prim voice. “I hope you won’t be too severe with that old native.” She points to Pablo, the old rascal, wriggling with his feet and hands in a clove hitch. “Under the circumst’nces and according to his lights,” she says, “he’s treated me extremely courteous. He was only holding me for ransom.”
Benbow stood looking at her like one of her own school kiddies.
“I’ll deal with him justly, miss,” he tells her. “I — I hope ” — (Did n’t know what to say, he told me private afterward.) “I’m — I’m sorry ye could n’t come to my Christmas Eve party.”
“I’m sorry, too,” she answers him. “If I had, I’d not have put you to half the trouble, should I ? Mr. ’Igg — a friend warned me that I’d find it too boist — I mean, that a girl would dampen the festivities. I wanted to go,” she says, “like everything.”
She smiled at him so pretty that Maestro ’Iggins turned black as a South China squall. She knowed it, too, I bet ye, but sat there as unwary as a bird on the bough.
When we mustered all hands, we was right enough, ’cept one or two had got sliced a bit. Miss Lucy never squeals at the blood, but ups and bandages ’em proper.
Riding home, I saw the fust change for the worse come over Harry Benbow. He drops back from alongside the girl, and says he to me, —
“Cap’n Pratt, this Pablo looks tough and musc’lar?”
“We don’t look for’ard to eating him,” I says ; “just to yardarming him by the neck.”
“I mean,” says Harry, “he’s well and hearty ? ”
“Sight more able-bodied than most o’ my crew,” I tells him.
“ These Yankee schoolmistresses,” complains Benbow, “they have taught the value of edgycation so jolly earnest, Carigao ’ll have no workmen. Nothing but lawyers and patriots and caballeros,” says he, “a-fandangoing round in patent leather. We need Labor. And,” he says, “this musc’lar old rebel could bale hemp, alive, better ’n he could stretch it, dead. If he can be begged off, I ’ll make him work!” he says.
Softening already, d’ ye see, weakening. And there was we — his guests, mind ye, too — a-looking for’ard to a hanging that we’d pictured for two years.
All the rest o’ the way he rode alongside the girl, laughing and playing the bloody Tom Fool. Crossing the inlet, he must hold her safe on to her horse— Hah!
We got back, be-’anged, at nightfall, and all troops topside into Benbow’s house to celebrate Christmas Night. But after what Christmas Eve promised, beGeorge, ’t was tame. She played the old piano proper, and sung how shepherds was watching of their flocks by night, ye know, and we all asked for more, and —well, I will say that passed off pleasant enough. And Jefferson Davis ’Iggins, he rumpled up his hair and recited us some noisy poems, about the Turk a-snoring in his gilded tent. And that there monologue, name of Hamlet. And I must say, if all Shakespeare’s so ’orrid doleful as that poem was, I would n’t want him for shipmate o’ mine.
Next day I sailed for Manila. ’T was a month afore the Nostar Seenoria tied up to the pantalan in Carigao again. Harry and I sat up late over our pegs, as always; but he seemed absent-minded; and just as I started to go back aboard, he said,
“Ye know, Cap’n Pratt, ’t would be rather a pity if that little schoolmistress should marry the maestro ? ”
' “Why not?” I says. “Birds of a feather ” —
“No fear!” cuts in Benbow; then, drawling as he did when puzzled, “the bounder has pluck, but — ’t would be rather a pity, ye know.” I came away and left him sitting, pulling his mustache and drawling: “An elocutionist! Rawther a pit-ay, rawther a pit-ay!”
Thought no more of it till the Seenoria put in there along Easter. Benbow said he thought of joining Lord Roberts’s league not to drink afore dinner much; behaved mournful; said, just as I was leaving again, “ Ye know, Gregory,” (called me Gregory, be-’anged), “ye know, marriage is like doubling No Trumps: unless you’re sure, play it single.”
Two months later I had the dismal billet o’ taking him to Manila to their wedding.
Pretty ? Why, Lucy was — Look here, my fust officer, — and I only stand that goo-goo ’cause he can talk Spanish, — well, he stayed awake all one day just to look at her ! My word, she was a handsome bride, and a happy. Eyes like bloomin’ stars. Laying out a new course in my chart-room, I could n’t help overhearing’ em on deck, out o’ window. The talk between those two did n’t have to travel far, and rated about as high as this: “I love you, dear.” . . . “And I love you, dear,” ... “I know ye do, don’t I, sweet’eart?” . . . “And I know you do, don’t I, sweet’eart ? ” . . . “No, ye don’t, ye only say ye do.” . . . “Yes, I do, dear.” . . . “No, ye don’t.” . . . “Yes, I do.” . . . “No, ye don’t.” . . . Hah ! About four cable-lengths of that, and then they’d start arguing the same point all over again. It threw my figgers out a whole decimal place, and smudged the chart. So I went out and cuffed Pedro at the wheel, and stood beyond earshot and blushed ! Yes, sir, I fair blushed for poor Harry Benbow! And then all to onc’t it comes over me, “Gregory Pratt, there ain’t no more Carigao for you!”
No more there was n’t, mind ye. In good old bachelor days, it took two muchachos to carry in the trays o’ bottles. But next time I goes topside in the Company’s house there, who comes floating and flipping into the room but Mrs. Harry Benbow — if — you — please — with one lonesome glass o’ whiskey-tansan in her hand.
I’m drinking “Best respects, ma’am,” when she ups and says : —
“If any of Harry’s friends come in, cap’n, please hide it.”
“Hide what?” says I.
“Hide the glass,” says she.
“What’s wrong of it?” says I, holding it up to the light.
“Why, ye see, cap’n,” says this young missus, cajoling at me, “I’ve decided — we’ve decided we must save our money. Poor Harry’s so frightful extravagant. And ye know, Cap’n Pratt, in the islands drink is the biggest bloody expense about a house. But Harry and I ’ll always break the rule for you,” says she, sweet as treacle.
Think o’ that! At Carigao! O’ course, the theory might sound plausible, but in practice, — and Harry Benbow’s house!
“Well,” says I, breathing difficult, “well, I’ll be everlastingly—honored! ”
That word came just in the nick, too.
Next voyage, I spent my shore time at the new Club the boys had founded in the old Tabacalera go-down: last year’s Punch to read, amongst the ruins, — cheerful as Bilibid prison. Then I was transferred to the East-Luzon route, and never went nigh Carigao for a twelvemonth.
Coming ashore then, be-’anged, I forgot there was a Mrs. Benbow. I bust into the office, so glad to see him again I fair shouts, “Hallo, Harry, ye old pirate ! How are ye?”
“S-s-sh!” says he. “You’ll wake the Junior.”
Something squalled ’orrid, topside.
“There!” says Harry, quite put out. “You have waked him!”
By and by, ye know, the amah comes in, holding a silly red twisting baby.
“How’s that?” says Harry. “What d’ ye think o’ Him?”
“Well,” I says, “I s’pose the world has to be popylated somehow.”
He was almost huffy. It only shows how these women can gradually spoil a natural sweet temper. And in time, what with her artful ways, and seizing hold of her husband’s own money, and wheedling him round her finger, and undermining his independence, that girl saved so much that Harry Benbow went Home to live !
And you’ll know how mean the next agent was, when I tell you he was a man from the Kingdom. What ? Kingdom o’ Fife, o’ course. So the station was ruined, too. Dead ! And hang it all, when I think o’ what used to be, — the lights, and card-playing, and sing-songing, and drinks, and lies, and happy days, and good chow —
The accommodation ladder rattled. A brisk step sounded along the deck. Smiling, affable, rejoicing as a strong man to run a race, appeared the belated bridegroom and treasurer. The drowsy murderers blinked recognition.
“Hallo, Pratt! Hallo, Milbank ! — Kept you waiting? You see, she made me write down all my orders for Manila shopping.”
The Mindoro’s commander grunted, strode to the telltale, and clanged the handle to “Stand By!” We in the dinghy had rowed half way back to Nostra Señora de Buen Viaje, and the cutter was slipping out from the noble headland amphitheatre of Romblon, before the little captain spoke again: —
Uncertain, coy, and hard to please ;
When pain and anguish wring the brow, —
Uncertain, coy, and hard to please! ”
“And that’s how they ruined Harry Benbow.” Captain Pratt twitched the tiller-ropes impatiently. “That’s how they delay traffic. And be-’anged, that’s how they do us lonesome old beggars out of a pal.”