I SAW THREE SHIPS
The "Jolly Pilchards"
On the following Saturday night (New Year's Eve) an incident worth record occurred in the bar-parlour of the "Jolly Pilchards" at Porthlooe.
You may find the inn to this day on the western side of the Hauen as you go to the Old Quay. A pair of fish-scales faces the entrance, and the jolly pilchards themselves hang over your head, on a signboard that creaks mightily when the wind blows from the south.
The signboard was creaking that night, and a thick drizzle drove in gusts past the door. Behind the red blinds within, the landlady, Prudy Polwarne, stood with her back to the open hearth. Her hands rested on her hips, and the firelight, that covered all the opposite wall and most of the ceiling with her shadow, beat out between her thick ankles in the shape of a fan. She was a widow, with a huge, pale face and a figure nearly as broad as it was long; and no man thwarted her. Weaknesses she had none, except an inability to darn her stockings. That the holes at her heels might not be seen, she had a trick of pulling her stockings down under her feet, an inch or two at a time, as they wore out; and when the tops no longer reached to her knee, she gartered--so gossip said--half-way down the leg.
Around her, in as much of the warmth as she spared, sat Old Zeb, Uncle Issy, Jim Lewarne, his brother, and six or seven other notables of the two parishes. They were listening just now, and though the mug of eggy-hot passed from hand to hand as steadily as usual, a certain restrained excitement might have been guessed from the volumes of smoke ascending from their clay pipes.
"A man must feel it, boys," the hostess said, "wi' a rale four-poster hung wi' yaller on purpose to suit his wife's complexion, an' then to have no wife arter all."
"Ay," assented Old Zeb, who puffed in the corner of a settle on her left, with one side of his face illuminated and the other in deep shadow, "he feels it, I b'lieve. Such a whack o' dome as he'd a-bought, and a weather-glass wherein the man comes forth as the woman goes innards, an' a dresser, painted a bright liver colour, engaging to the eye."
"I niver seed a more matterimonial outfit, as you might say," put in Uncle Issy.
"An' a warmin'-pan, an' likewise a lookin'-glass of a high pattern."
"An' what do he say?" inquired Calvin Oke, drawing a short pipe from his lips.
"In round numbers, he says nothing, but takes on."
"A wisht state!"
"Ay, 'tis wisht. Will 'ee be so good as to frisk up the beverage, Prudy, my dear?"
Prudy took up a second large mug that stood warming on the hearthstone, and began to pour the eggy-hot from one vessel to the other until a creamy froth covered the top.
"'T'other chap's a handsome chap," she said, with her eyes on her work.
"Handsome is as handsome does," squeaked Uncle Issy.
"If you wasn' such an aged man, Uncle, I' call 'ee a very tame talker."
Uncle Issy collapsed.
"I reckon you'm all afeard o' this man," continued Prudy, looking round on the company, "else I'd have heard some mention of a shal-lal afore this."
The men with one accord drew their pipes out and looked at her.
"I mean it. If Porthlooe was the place it used to be, there'd be tin kettles in plenty to drum en out o' this naybourhood to the Rogue's March next time he showed his face here. When's he comin' back?"
No one knew.
"The girl's as bad; but 'twould be punishment enough for her to know her lover was hooted out o' the parish. Mind you, I've no grudge agen the man. I liked his dare-devil look, the only time I saw en. I'm only sayin' what I think--that you'm all afeard."
"I don't b'long to the parish," remarked a Landaviddy man, in the pause that followed, "but 'tis incumbent on Lanihale, I'm fain to admit."
The Lanihale men fired up at this.
"I've a tin-kettle," said Calvin Oke, "an' I'm ready."
"An' I for another," said Elias Sweetland. "An' I, An' I," echoed several voices.
"Stiddy there, stiddy, my hearts of oak," began Old Zeb, reflectively. "A still tongue makes a wise head, and 'twill be time enough to talk o' shal-lals when the weddin'-day's fixed. Now I've a better notion. It will not be gain-said by any of 'ee that I've the power of logic in a high degree--hey?"
"Trew, O king!"
"The rarity that you be, crowder! Sorely we shall miss 'ee when you'm gone."
"Very well, then," Old Zeb announced. "I'm goin' to be logical wi' that chap. The very next time I see en, I'm goin' to step up to en an' say, as betwixt man an' man, 'Look 'ee here,' I'll say, 'I've a lawful son. You've a-took his name, an' you've a-stepped into his shoes, an' therefore I've a right to spake'" (he pulled at his churchwarden), "'to spake to 'ee'" (another pull) "'like a father.'" Here followed several pulls in quick succession.
The pipe had gone out. So, still holding the attention of the room, he reached out a hand towards the tongs. Prudy, anticipating his necessity, caught them up, dived them into the blaze, and drawing out a blazing end of stick, held it over the pipe while he sucked away.
During this pause a heavy step was heard in the passage. The door was pushed open, and a tall man, in dripping cloak and muddy boots, stalked into the room.
It was the man they had been discussing.
"A dirty night, friends, and a cold ride from Plymouth." He shook the water out of his hat over the sanded floor. "I'll take a pull at something hot, if you please."
Every one looked at him. Prudy, forgetting what she was about, waved the hot brand to and fro under Old Zeb's nose, stinging his eyes with smoke. Between confusion and suffocation, his face was a study.
"You seem astonished, all of you. May I ask why?"
"To tell 'ee the truth, young man," said Prudy, "'twas a case of 'talk of the devil an' you'll see his horns.'"
"Indeed. You were speaking good of me, I hope."
"Which o' your ears is burning?"
"Then it shu'd be the left ear only. Old Zeb, here--"
"Hush 'ee now, Prudy!" implored the crowder.
"--Old Zeb here," continued Prudy, relentlessly, "was only a-sayin', as you walked in, that he'd read you the Riot Act afore you was many days older. He's mighty fierce wi' your goin's on, I 'sure 'ee."
"Is that so, Mr. Minards?"
Mr. Minards had, it is probable, never felt so uncomfortable in all his born days, and the experience of standing between two fires was new to him. He looked from the stranger around upon the company, and was met on all hands by the same expectant stare.
"Well, you see--" he began, and looked around again. The faces were inexorable. "I declare, friends, the pore chap is drippin' wet. Sich a tiresome v'yage, too, as it must ha' been from Plymouth, i' this weather! I dunno how we came to forget to invite en nigher the hearth. Well, as I was a-sayin'--"
He stopped to search for his hat beneath the settle. Producing a large crimson handkerchief from the crown, he mopped his brow slowly.
"The cur'ous part o't, naybours, is the sweatiness that comes over a man, this close weather."
"I'm waiting for your answer," put in the stranger, knitting his brows.
"Surely, surely, that's the very thing I was comin' to. The answer, as you may say, is this--but step a bit nigher, for there's lashins o' room--the answer, as far as that goes, is what I make to you, sayin'-- that if you wasn' so passin' wet, may be I'd blurt out what I had i' my mind. But, as things go, 'twould seem like takin' an advantage."
"Not at all."
"'Tis very kind o' you to say so, to be sure." Old Zeb picked up his pipe again. "An' now, friends, that this little bit of onpleasantness have a-blown over, doin' ekal credit to both parties this New Year's-eve, after the native British fashion o' fair-play (as why shu'd it not?), I agree we be conformable to the pleasant season an' let harmony prevail--"
"Why, man," interrupted Prudy, "you niver gave no answer at all. 'Far as I could see you've done naught but fidget like an angletwitch and look fifty ways for Sunday."
"'Twas the roundaboutest, dodge-my-eyedest, hole-an'-cornerdest bit of a chap's mind as iver I heard given," pronounced the traitorous Oke.
"Oke--Oke," Old Zeb exclaimed, "all you know 'pon the fiddle I taught 'ee!"
Said Prudy--"That's like what the chap said when the donkey kicked en. ''Taint the stummick that I do vally,' he said, ''tis the cussed ongratefulness o' the jackass.'"
"I'm still waiting," repeated the stranger.
"Well, then"--Old Zeb cast a rancorous look around--"I'll tell 'ee, since you'm so set 'pon hearin'. Afore you came in, the good folks here present was for drummin' you out o' the country. 'Shockin' behayviour!' 'Aw, very shockin' indeed!' was the words I heerd flyin' about, an' 'Who'll make en sensible o't?' an' 'We'll give en what-for.' 'A silent tongue makes a wise head,' said I, an' o' this I call Uncle Issy here to witness."
Uncle Issy corroborated. "You was proverbial, crowder, I can duly vow, an' to that effect, unless my mem'ry misgives me."
"So, in a mollifyin' manner, I says, 'What hev the pore chap done, to be treated so bad?' I says. Says I, 'better lave me use logic wi' en'-- eh, Uncle Issy?"
"Logic was the word."
The stranger turned round upon the company, who with one accord began to look extremely foolish as Old Zeb so adroitly turned the tables.
"Is this true?" he asked.
"'Tis the truth, I must admit," volunteered Uncle Issy, who had not been asked, but was fluttered with delight at having stuck to the right side against appearances.
"I think," said the stranger, deliberately, "it is as well that you and I, my friends, should understand each other. The turn of events has made it likely that I shall pass my days in this neighbourhood, and I wish to clear up all possible misconceptions at the start. In the first place, I am going to marry Miss Ruby Tresidder. Our banns will be asked in church to-morrow; but let us have a rehearsal. Can any man here show cause or just impediment why this marriage should not take place?"
"You'd better ask that o' Young Zeb, mister," said Prudy.
"You owe your life to'n, I hear."
"When next you see him you can put two questions. Ask him in the first place if he saved it at my request."
"Tut-tut. A man likes to live, whether he axes for it or no," grunted Elias Sweetland. "And what the devil do you know about it?" demanded the stranger.
"I reckon I know what a man's like."
"Oh, you do, do you? Wait a while, my friend. In the second place," he went on, returning to Prudy, "ask young Zebedee Minards, if he wants my life back, to come and fetch it. And now attend all. Do you see these?"
He threw back his cloak, and, diving a hand into his coat-pocket, produced a couple of pistols. The butts were rich with brass-work, and the barrels shone as he held them out in the firelight.
"You needn't dodge your heads about so gingerly. I'm only about to give you an exhibition. How many tall candlesticks have you in the house besides the pair here?" he inquired of Prudy.
"Put candles in the other two pairs and set them on the chimney-shelf."
"Do as I tell you."
"Now here's summat like a man!" said Prudy, and went out obediently to fetch them.
Until she returned there was dead silence in the bar-parlour. The men puffed uneasily at their pipes, not one of which was alight, and avoided the stranger's eye, which rested on each in turn with a sardonic humour.
Prudy lit the candles, one from the other, and after snuffing them with her fingers that they might burn steadily, arranged them in a row on the mantelshelf. Now above this shelf the chimney-piece was panelled to the height of some two and a half feet, and along the panel certain ballads that Prudy had purchased of the Sherborne messenger were stuck in a row with pins.
"Better take those ballads down, if you value them," the stranger remarked.
She turned round inquiringly.
"I'm going to shoot."
"Sakes alive--an' my panel, an' my best brass candlesticks!"
"Take them down."
She gave in, and unpinned the ballads.
"Now stand aside."
He stepped back to the other side of the room, and set his back to the door.
"Don't move," he said to Calvin Oke, whose chair stood immediately under the line of fire, "your head is not the least in the way. And don't turn it either, but keep your eye on the candle to the right."
This was spoken in the friendliest manner, but it hardly reassured Oke, who would have preferred to keep his eye on the deadly weapon now being lifted behind his back. Nevertheless he did not disobey, but sat still, with his eyes fixed on the mantelshelf, and only his shoulders twitching to betray his discomposure.
The room was suddenly full of sound, then of smoke and the reek of gunpowder. As the noise broke on their ears one of the candles went out quietly. The candlestick did not stir, but a bullet was embedded in the panel behind. Calvin Oke felt his scalp nervously.
"One," counted the stranger. He walked quietly to the table, set down his smoking pistol, and took up the other, looking round at the same time on the white faces that stared on him behind the thick curls of smoke. Stepping back to his former position, he waited while they could count twenty, lifted the second pistol high, brought it smartly down to the aim and fired again.
The second candle went out, and a second bullet buried itself in Prudy's panel.
So he served the six, one after another, without a miss. Twice he reloaded both pistols slowly, and while he did so not a word was spoken. Indeed, the only sound to be heard came from Uncle Issy, who, being a trifle asthmatical with age, felt some inconvenience from the smoke in his throat. By the time the last shot was fired the company could hardly see one another. Prudy, two of whose dishes had been shaken off the dresser, had tumbled upon a settle, and sat there, rocking herself to and fro, with her apron over her head.
The sound of firing had reached the neighbouring houses, and by this time the passage was full of men and women, agog for a tragedy. The door burst open. Through the dense atmosphere the stranger descried a crowd of faces in the passage. He was the first to speak.
"Good folk, you alarm yourselves without cause. I have merely been pointing an argument that I and my friends happen to be holding here."
Then he turned to Calvin Oke, who lay in his chair like a limp sack, slowly recovering from his emotions at hearing the bullets whiz over his head.
"When I assure you that I carry these weapons always about me, you will hardly need to be warned against interfering with me again. The first man that meddles, I'll shoot like a rabbit--by the Lord Harry, I will! You hear?"
He slipped the pistols into his pocket, pulled out two crown pieces, and tossed them to Prudy.
"That'll pay for the damage, I daresay." So, turning on his heel, he marched out, leaving them in the firelight. The crowd in the passage fell back to right and left, and in a moment more he had disappeared into the black drizzle outside.
But the tradition of his feat survives, and the six holes in Prudy's panel still bear witness to its truth.