"Come, come, Mr. Helmsworth, you must not talk like that," said the Chairman; "Captain Harveston has been a long time in our service, and we have never known him act unjustly to any one. Would it not be better to admit that there is _some_ truth in what he says, and then to leave it to the clemency of the Board, to deal with as they may consider fair?"
"I am afraid, sir," I replied, "with all due respect to yourself and the Board, that I cannot submit to being declared neglectful of my duties, or allow myself to be called untruthful when I know the charge to be unjust. For some reason, I cannot say what, Captain Harveston took a dislike to me before the voyage commenced, and this report is the outcome of that dislike."
I then proceeded to explain what had happened; pointed out that while the dock workmen were engaged upon the ship, and she was of necessity in an untidy condition, Captain Harveston had complained of her lack of orderliness. I referred to the paint incident, and commented upon the fact that he had charged me with concealing what had happened from him. With regard to the ship being in an untidy state throughout the voyage, I stated that I was prepared to bring witnesses to prove that she was as perfect as it was possible for a ship to be. If a little of the gloss had worn off by the time we reached the Thames, I explained that it was due to the fact that we had experienced very rough weather in the Bay and also coming up Channel. The charge of untruthfulness I dismissed as being both petty and absurd. Towards the end of my remarks I had some difficulty in restraining my temper, for I could see that the Board was still inclined to side with the captain against me. Perhaps my manner was not submissive enough to please them. At any rate when they asked me to withdraw for a few minutes while they discussed the matter, I began to feel that my case was, so far as they were concerned, a hopeless one. After ten minutes' absence I was recalled.
"Mr. Helmsworth," the Chairman began in his dignified way, polishing his gla.s.ses with his pocket-handkerchief as he spoke, "we have most carefully gone into the matter, and have arrived at the conclusion that, taking into consideration the length of time you have been in the Company's service, and the fact that there have never been any complaints against you hitherto, we should be justified in permitting you an opportunity of retrieving any little error you may have committed. If, therefore, you will agree to apologize to Captain Harveston, and will promise to do your best in the future, I may say on behalf of the Board, that we are prepared to allow this most painful matter to drop."
This was more than I had bargained for. I had at least hoped that they would have given orders that I should be confronted with my accuser, and that I should be allowed to call witnesses in my own defence.
"With all due respect, gentlemen," I said, with perhaps more freedom than I should have used, "I cannot submit to such a thing. Captain Harveston has brought these charges against me for some reason best known to himself. It seems to me, if only in common fairness, that he should be called upon to prove them, and if he is unable to do so, to apologize to me for the wrong he has done me. I declare most emphatically that I am innocent, and, if you will allow me, I will prove it. I am sure my brother officers will be able to convince you as to my ability, and to the state of the ship. The Dock Superintendent should also be able to do the same."
"Unfortunately the Dock Superintendent has confirmed the captain's opinion," said the Chairman.
To my chagrin, I remembered then that the Dock Superintendent and I had had a quarrel some years before, and also that he was a great friend of the captain's. It was not likely, therefore, that he would side with me.
"If the Dock Superintendent says that, I suppose I must submit," I answered. "Nevertheless, I contend that neither he nor Captain Harveston is speaking the truth."
"Dear me, dear me," said one of the Directors, "this is really not the sort of behaviour to which we are accustomed. Why not take the Chairman's advice, Mr. Helmsworth, and apologize to your captain? I am quite sure that he would bear no malice to you, and the matter could then be amicably settled."
This had the same effect upon me as the waving of a red flag is said to have upon an angry bull.
"I shall certainly not apologize," I answered. "Captain Harveston is in the wrong, and I refuse to have anything more to do with him."
"In that case, I am afraid the consequences will be serious," said the Chairman. "We should be loath to lose your services, Mr. Helmsworth, particularly after your long service, but unless you apologize to Captain Harveston, we have no other course open to us."
"I shall not do that," I returned, "and in case of my dismissal I a.s.sure you I shall immediately take what proceedings the law allows me, in order to prove that I have been slandered most grossly."
The Board stared at me in amazement. Was it possible, they were doubtless asking themselves, that a miserable chief officer dared to beard them in this fashion?
"What proceedings you take against Captain Harveston are no concern of ours, after you have quitted our employment," said the Chairman, "but if you will be well advised, you will think twice before you invoke the a.s.sistance of the law."
"I am to understand, therefore," I said, "that I am dismissed."
"No, no," the Chairman replied; "we will not go as far as that, we will call it a resignation."
"Allow me then to wish you good-day, gentlemen," I said, and bowing I walked out of the room. "You will, doubtless, hear from me later."
"A pretty market I have brought my pigs to," I said to myself, as I walked down Leadenhall Street, after leaving the offices of the Company. "Poor little Molly, this will be a sad blow to her. It looks as if my marriage is now further off than ever."
How little I guessed then that the interview I had just had, had brought it closer than if the trouble with Harveston had never occurred. Acting on the resolve I had made while waiting for the Board's decision, I made my way in the direction of High Holborn. The old lawyer who had conducted what little legal business my father had required, and who had arranged my mother's affairs after his death, had an office in one of the curious old Inns of Court in that neighbourhood. I determined to lay the case before him and to act according to the advice he gave me. On reaching the office I had the satisfaction of finding him at home. The clerk, who received me, was as old as his employer, and I believe had served him for upwards of forty years. His memory for faces must have been a good one, for he recognized me at once, although several years had elapsed since I had last called upon him.
"Mr. Winzor is in his office, Mr. Helmsworth," he said, "and, if you will be good enough to wait for a moment, I will place your name before him." He disappeared, and presently returned and requested me to follow him.
The old lawyer received me most cordially and invited me to take a seat. He asked after my mother's health, then took a pinch of snuff, looked at me fixedly, and then took another. After this he inquired in what way he could serve me. I thereupon placed the case before him.
"This is a matter," he said, after a pause of about a minute, "that will require very careful consideration. It is plain that the captain in question is a vindictive man. His reason for being so bitter against you is difficult to understand, but we have the best of evidence before us that it does exist. It's one thing, however, to be unjustly treated, and quite another to go to law about it. In a somewhat lengthy career, it has always been my endeavour to impress one thing upon my clients--Don't go to law if you can possibly avoid it. Doubtless were you to take the case into court we could produce sufficient evidence from your brother officers and the petty officers of the ship to prove that you did your duty, and also that you were a conscientious officer. But, even supposing you won the day, how would you stand?"
"I should have reinstated my character," I replied somewhat sharply, for the old man's manner grated upon me.
"And apart from the question of character, how much better off would you be?" he asked. "The fact of your calling the officers of the ship would put the Company to a considerable amount of inconvenience and expense, which they would naturally resent. It would also have the effect of putting them in an antagonistic att.i.tude towards yourself, which, at present, they do not appear anxious to take up. The case would attract some attention, the various shipping companies would read it, and, should you apply to them for a position, I fear you would find them averse to taking an officer who, you must forgive my plain speaking, was ready to invoke the aid of the law to settle his disputes with his captain and his employers. Do you see my contention?"
"Yes, I see it," I replied; "but, surely, you don't mean to say that I am to have this injustice done me and say nothing about it?"
"I am afraid I do not see what else to advise you to do," he replied.
"I think you have been badly treated, but, upon my word, though if I were in your place I should doubtless feel as you do, I should drop the matter, and, to quote a familiar Stock Exchange expression, 'cut the losses.'"
This was not at all what I had expected, and boiling over as I was, the advice he gave me was most unpalatable. He must have seen this, for he tapped me gently on the arm.
"Master Richard," he said, as if he were talking to a school-boy, "I am an old man and you are a young one. Youth is proverbially hot-headed, while Age is apt to stand off, and looks at things from afar. I pledge you my word that, in giving you this advice, I am acting as I deem best for your welfare. There is an old saying to the effect that 'there are as good fish in the sea as ever came out of it,' and I fancy the same remark can be made to apply to the vessels sailing upon that sea. Now will you leave the matter in my hands?"
"Most willingly," I replied, "provided I am not going to continue to be suspected of being a malingerer and a liar."
"Sir Alexander G.o.dfrey, the Chairman of the Company," he went on, "is a personal friend of my own, and if you will allow me, I will make a point of calling upon him to-morrow in order to have a chat with him upon the subject. I cannot promise, but I think I shall be able to induce him to persuade his brother Directors to either look over the matter, or at any rate to make sure that you leave the Company's service without any stain upon your character."
"But to do that I must be proved innocent."
The old man smiled a crafty smile.
"When you are as old as I am," he said, "you will have discovered that there are ways and ways of doing things. Leave it to me to arrange and I fancy you will be satisfied with the result."
"Let it be so, then," I replied.
"I am not a vain man," he said, "but I will say that I do not think you could do better. Now tell me how the pretty Miss Molly is."
"She is very well indeed," I replied, "but I fancy this news will be a disappointment to her."
"Not a bit of it," he answered. "It's just at such times as these that the real woman comes out. Egad! you youngsters think you understand women, but, bless my heart, you don't! And now you just trot back to Wiltshire, and give my kindest remembrances to your mother, and, well, if you like, you can give a kiss to Miss Molly for me. Tell her not to bother herself; that I will see you out of this affair all right. I am very glad, my lad, that you came to me. When you are in trouble I hope you will always do so. Your father and I were old friends, and--well, I am not going to say anything further, but I'll tell you this; if I had met your mother before your father did----"
He stopped suddenly and tapped his snuff-box upon the table, then he rose from his chair, shook me by the hand, and told me he would write me immediately he had anything of importance to tell me.
I took this as a signal for dismissal, and thanking him for his advice, left him. Twenty minutes later I caught the three o'clock express at Waterloo, and in something under two hours was back in Wiltshire once more.
Molly met me half-way out of Salisbury, and her loving sympathy cheered me more than anything else could have done.
"Don't be miserable about it," she said, when I had told her everything; "there are plenty of ships in the world, and lots of owners who will value your services more than this Company seems to have done. Remember, I believe in you with my whole heart, dear, and if it is decreed that we are not to be married for some time to come, then we must wait with all patience until that happy day shall dawn.
When you've had a little more holiday, you can begin to look about you for something else."
Could any man have wished for a braver sweetheart? Alas! however, matters were not destined at first to turn out as happily as she had prophesied. I applied to firm after firm, but my efforts in every case were entirely unsuccessful. At last I began to think that if my luck did not mend very soon, I should have to pocket my pride and ship as second or third officer, hoping by perseverance and hard work to get back to my old position later on. This eventually I decided to do, but even then I was not successful. The only line which could offer me anything was in the Russian grain trade, and the best berth they had vacant was that of third officer. As may be supposed, this was a bit of a come-down for my pride, and before accepting it, for I had run up to London to interview the firm in question, I returned to Falstead to talk it over with my sweetheart. On my reaching home my mother greeted me with an air of importance.
"A gentleman has been to see you this afternoon," she said, "a tall, handsome man. He did not leave his name, but he said you would probably remember him, as he had met you on board the _Pernambuco_. He is staying at the George, and is most anxious to see you."
"I met a good many people on board the _Pernambuco_," I said a little bitterly. "A lot of them were tall and handsome. I wonder who he can be?"
She shook her head.
"You say that he is staying at the George," I continued. "Very well, when I have had my tea, I will go down and find out who he is."
In due course I reached the little inn at the end of the village street. The proprietress, old Mrs. Newman, had known me since I was so high, and upon my entering her carefully-sanded parlour, she bustled out of her little room at the back to greet me. I inquired whether she had a strange gentleman staying in the house, and she answered in the affirmative.
« Previous My Bookmarks Chapters Next»