Chapter 2




PORT NASSAU.


They left the beach, climbed a road across the neck of the promontory, and rattled downhill into Port Nassau. Dusk had fallen before they reached the head of its cobbled street; and here one of the postillions drew out a horn from his holster and began to blow loud blasts on it. This at once drew the townsfolk into the road and warned them to get out of the way.

To the child, drowsed by the strong salt air and the rocking of the coach, the glimmering whitewashed houses on either hand went by like a procession in a dream. The figures and groups of men and women on the side-walks, too, had a ghostly, furtive air. They seemed to the boy to be whispering together and muttering. Now this was absurd; for what with the blare of the postillion's horn, the clatter of hoofs, the jolting and rumbling of wheels, the rattle of glass, our travellers had all the noise to themselves--or all but the voice of the gale now rising again for an afterclap and snoring at the street corners. Yet his instinct was right. Many of the crowd were muttering. These New Englanders had no love to spare for a Collector of Customs, a fine gentlemen from Old England and (rumour said) an atheist to boot. They resented this ostent of entry; the men more sullenly than the women, some of whom in their hearts could not help admiring its high-and-mighty insolence.

The Collector, at any rate, had a crowd to receive him, for it was Saturday evening. On Saturdays by custom the fishing-fleet of Port Nassau made harbour before nightfall, and the crews kept a sort of decorous carnival before the Sabbath, of which they were strict observers. In the lower part of the town, by the quays, much buying and selling went on, in booths of sail-cloth lit as a rule by oil-flares. For close upon a week no boat had been able to put to sea; but the Saturday market and the Saturday gossip and to-and-fro strolling were in full swing none the less, though the salesmen had to substitute hurricane-lamps for their ordinary flares, and the boy--now wide awake again--had a passing glimpse of a couple of booths that had been wrecked by the rising wind and were being rebuilt. He craned out to stare at the helpers, while they, pausing in their work and dragged to and fro by the flapping canvas, stared back as the coach went by.

It came to a halt on a level roadway some few rods beyond this bright traffic, in an open space which, he knew, must be near the waterside, for beyond the lights of the booths he had spied a cluster of masts quite close at hand. Or perhaps he had fallen asleep and in his sleep had been transported far inland. For the wind had suddenly died down, the coach appeared to be standing in a forest glade--at any rate, among trees--and through the trees fell a soft radiance that might well be the moon's were it only a tinge less yellow. In the shine of it stood Manasseh, holding open the coach door; and as the child stepped out these queer impressions were succeeded by one still more curious and startling. For a hand, as it seemed, reached out of the darkness, brushed him smartly across the face, and was gone. He gave a little cry and stood staring aloft at a lantern that hung some feet above him from an arched bracket. Across its glass face ran the legend BOWLING GREEN INN, in orange-coloured lettering, and the ray of its oil-lamp wavered on the boughs of two tall maples set like sentinels by the Inn gateway and reddening now to the fall of the leaf. Yes, the ground about his feet was strewn with leaves: it must be one of these that had brushed by his face.

If the folk in the streets had been sullen, those of the Inn were eager enough, even obsequious. A trio of grooms fell to unharnessing the horses; a couple of porters ran to and fro, unloading the baggage and cooking-pots; while the landlady shouted orders right and left in the porchway. She deemed, honest soul, that she was mistress of the establishment, until Manasseh undeceived her.

Manasseh's huge stature and gold-encrusted livery commanded respect in spite of his colour. He addressed her as "woman." "Woman, if you will stop yo' cacklin' and yo' crowin'? Go in now and fetch me fish, fetch me chickens, fetch me plenty eggs. Fetch me a dam scullion. Heh? Stir yo' legs and fetch me a dam scullion, and the chickens tender. His Exc'llence mos' partic'ler the chickens tender."

Still adjuring her he shouldered his way through the house to the kitchen, whence presently his voice sounded loud, authoritative, above the clatter of cooking-pots. From time to time he broke away from the business of unpacking to reiterate his demands for fish, eggs, chicken--the last to be tender at all costs and at pain of his tremendous displeasure.

"And I assure you, ma'am," said Captain Vyell, standing in the passage at the door of his private room, "his standard is a high one. I believe the blackguard never stole a tough fowl in his life. . . . Show me to my bedroom, please, if the trunks are unstrapped; and the child, here, to his. . . . Eh? What's this?--a rush-light? I don't use rush-lights. Go to Manasseh and ask him to unpack you a pair of candles."

The landlady returned with a silver candlestick in either hand, and candles of real wax. She had never seen the like, and led the way upstairs speculating on their cost. The bedrooms proved to be clean, though bare and more than a little stuffy--their windows having been kept shut for some days against the gale. The Collector commanded them to be opened. The landlady faintly protested. "The wind would gutter the candles--and such wax too!" She was told to obey, and she obeyed.

In the boy's room knelt a girl--a chambermaid--unstrapping his small valise. She had a rush-light on the floor beside her, and did not look up as the landlady thrust open the lattice and left the room with the Collector, the boy remaining behind. His candle stood upon a chest of drawers by the window; and, as the others went out, a draught of wind caught the dimity curtain, blew it against the flame, and in an instant ignited it.

The girl looked up swiftly at the sudden light above her, and as swiftly--before the child could cry out--was on her feet. She caught the fire between her two hands and beat it out, making no noise and scarcely flinching, though her flesh was certainly being scorched.

"That was lucky," she said, looking across at him with a smile.

"Ruth!--Ruth!" called the landlady's voice, up the corridor. "Here, a moment!"

She dropped the charred curtain and hurried to answer the call.

"Ruth! Where's the bootjack? His Honour will take off his riding-boots."

"Bootjack, ma'am?" interrupted the Collector, leaning back in a chair and extending a shapely leg with instep and ankle whereon the riding-boot fitted like a glove. "I don't maul my leather with bootjacks. Send Manasseh upstairs to me; ask him with my compliments what the devil he means by clattering saucepans when he should be attending to his master. . . . Eh, what's this?"

"She can do it, your Honour," said the landlady, catching Ruth by the shoulder and motioning her to kneel and draw off the boot. (It is likely she shirked carrying the message.)

"Oh, very well--if only she won't twist my foot. . . . Take care of the spur, child."

The girl knelt, and with her blistered hand took hold of the boot-heel below the spur. It cost her exquisite pain, but she did not wince; and her head being bent, no one perceived the tears in her eyes.

She had scarcely drawn off the second boot, when Manasseh appeared in the doorway carrying a silver tray with glasses and biscuits; a glass of red wine for his master, a more innocent cordial for the young gentleman, and both glasses filmed over with the chill of crushed ice.

The girl was withdrawing when the Collector, carelessly feeling in his pocket, drew out a coin and put it into her hand. Her fingers closed on it sharply, almost with a snatch. In truth, the touch of metal was so intolerable to the burnt flesh that, but for clutching it so, she must have dropped the coin. Still with bowed head she passed quietly from the room.

Master Dicky munched his macaroon and sipped his cordial. He had a whole guinea in his breeches pocket, and was thinking it would be great fun to step out and explore the town, if only for a little way. To-morrow was Sunday, and all the stores would be closed. But Manasseh was too busy to come with him for bodyguard--and his father's boots were off; and besides, he stood in great awe and shyness of his admired parent. Had the boots been on, it would have cost him a bold effort to make the request. On the whole, the cordial warming him, Master Dicky had a mind to take French leave.




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