I SAW THREE SHIPS
Young Zeb Wins His Soul Back
At half-past nine, next morning, the stranger sat in the front room of the cottage vacated by the Lewarnes. On a rough table, pushed into a corner, lay the remains of his breakfast. A plum-coloured coat with silver buttons hung over the back of a chair by his side, and a waist-coat and silver-laced hat to match rested on the seat. For the wedding was to take place in an hour and a half.
He sat in frilled shirt, knee-breeches and stockings, and the sunlight streamed in upon his dark head as he stooped to pull on a shoe. The sound of his whistling filled the room, and the tune was, "Soldier, soldier, will you marry me?"
His foot was thrust into the first shoe, and his forefinger inserted at the heel, shoe-horn fashion, to slip it on, when the noise of light wheels sounded on the road outside, and stopped beside the gate. Looking up, he saw through the window the head and shoulders of Young Zeb's grey mare, and broke off his whistling sharply.
"Come in!" he called, and smiled softly to himself.
The door was pushed open, and Young Zeb stood on the threshold, looking down on the stranger, who wheeled round quietly on his chair to face him. Zeb's clothes were disordered, and looked as if he had spent the night in them; his face was yellow and drawn, with dark semicircles underneath the eyes; and he put a hand up against the door-post for support.
"To what do I owe this honour?" asked the stranger, gazing back at him.
Zeb pulled out a great turnip-watch from his fob, and said--
"Ay, for the wedding."
"Then look sharp. You've got a bare five-an'-twenty minnits."
"Excuse me, I'm not to be married till eleven."
"Iss, iss, but they're comin' at ten, sharp."
"And who in the world may 'they' be?"
The stranger sprang up to his feet, and seemed for a moment about to fly at Zeb's throat.
"You treacherous hound!"
"Stand off," said Zeb wearily, without taking his hand from the door-post. "I reckon it don't matter what I may be, or may not be, so long as you'm dressed i' ten minnits."
The other dropped his hands, with a short laugh.
"I beg your pardon. For aught I know you may have nothing to do with this infernal plot except to warn me against it."
"Don't make any mistake. 'Twas I that set the press-gang upon 'ee," answered Zeb, in the same dull tones.
There was silence between them for half a minute, and then the stranger spoke, as if to himself--
"My God! Love has made this oaf a man!" He stood for a while, sucking at his under-lip, and regarding Zeb gloomily. "May I ask why you have deliberately blown up this pretty mine at the eleventh hour?"
"I couldn't do it," Zeb groaned; "Lord knows 'twas not for love of you, but I couldn't."
"Upon my word, you fascinate me. People say that evil is more easily learnt than goodness; but that's great nonsense. The footsteps of the average beginner are equally weak in both pursuits. Would you mind telling me why you chose this particular form of treachery, in preference (let us say) to poison or shooting from behind a hedge? Was it simply because you risked less? Pardon the question, but I have a particular reason for knowing."
"We're wastin' time," said Zeb, pulling out his watch again.
"It's extraordinary how a fool will stumble on good luck. Why, sir, but for one little accident, the existence of which you could not possibly have known, I might easily have waited for the press-gang, stated the case to them, and had you lugged off to sea in my place. Has it occurred to you, in the course of your negotiations, that the wicked occasionally stumble into pits of their own digging? You, who take part in the psalm-singing every Sunday, might surely have remembered this. As it is, I suppose I must hurry on my clothes, and get to church by some roundabout way."
"I'm afeard you can't, without my help."
"'Cause the gang is posted all round 'ee. I met the lot half an hour back, an' promised to call 'pon you and bring word you was here."
"Come, come; I retract my sneers. You begin to excite my admiration. I shall undoubtedly shoot you before I'm taken, but it shall be your comfort to die amid expressions of esteem."
"You'm mistaken. I came to save 'ee, if you'll be quick."
"I've a load of ore-weed outside, in the cart. By the lie o' the cottage none can spy ye while you slip underneath it; but I'll fetch a glance round, to make sure. Underneath it you'll be safe, and I'll drive 'ee past the sailors, and send 'em on here to search."
"You develop apace. But perhaps you'll admit a flaw in your scheme. What on earth induced you to imagine I should trust you?"
"Man, I reckoned all that. My word's naught. But 'tis your one chance--and I would kneel to 'ee, if by kneelin' I could persuade 'ee. We'll fight it out after; bring your pistols. Only come!"
The stranger slipped on his other shoe, then his waistcoat and jacket, whistling softly. Then he stepped to the chimney-piece, took down his pistols, and stowed them in his coat-pockets.
"I'm quite ready."
Zeb heaved a great sigh like a sob; but only said:--
"Wait a second while I see that the coast's clear."
In less than three minutes the stranger was packed under the evil-smelling weed, drawing breath with difficulty, and listening, when the jolting allowed, to Zeb's voice as he encouraged the mare. Jowters' carts travel fast as a rule, for their load perishes soon, and the distance from the coast to the market is often considerable. In this case Jessamy went at a round gallop, the loose stones flying from under her hoofs. Now and then one struck up against the bottom of the cart. It was hardly pleasant to be rattled at this rate, Heaven knew whither. But the stranger had chosen his course, and was not the man to change his mind.
After about five minutes of this the cart was pulled up with a scramble, and he heard a voice call out, as it seemed, from the hedge--
"Right you are," answered Young Zeb;
"He's in the front room, pullin' on his boots. You'd best look slippy."
"Where's the coin?"
"There!" The stranger heard the click of money, as of a purse being caught. "You'll find it all right."
"H'm; best let me count it, though. One--two--three--four. I feels it my dooty to tell ye, young man, that it be a dirty trick. If this didn't chime in wi' my goodwill towards his Majesty's service, be danged if I'd touch the job with a pair o' tongs!"
"Ay--but I reckon you'll do't, all the same, for t'other half that's to come when you've got en safe an' sound. Dirty hands make clean money."
"Well, well; ye've been dirtily sarved. I'll see 'ee this arternoon at the 'Four Lords.' We've orders to sail at five, sharp; so there's no time to waste."
"Then I won't detain 'ee. Clk, Jessamy!"
The jolting began again, more furiously than ever, as the stranger drew a long breath. He waited till he judged they must be out of sight, and then began to stir beneath his load of weed.
"Keep quiet," said Zeb; "you shall get out as soon as we're up the hill."
The cart began to move more slowly, and tilted back with a slant that sent the stranger's heels against the tail-board. Zeb jumped down and trudged at the side. The hill was long, and steep from foot to brow; and when at length the slope lessened, the wheels turned off at a sharp angle and began to roll softly over turf.
The weight and smell of the weed were beginning to suffocate the man beneath it, when Zeb called out "Woa-a!" and the mare stopped.
"Now you can come out."
The other rose on his knees, shook some of his burden off, and blinked in the strong sunlight.
The cart stood on the fringe of a desolate tract of downs, high above the coast. Over the hedge to the right appeared a long narrow strip of sea. On the three remaining sides nothing was visible but undulating stretches of brown turf, except where, to northward, the summits of two hills in the heart of the county just topped the rising ground that hid twenty intervening miles of broken plain.
"We can leave the mare to crop. There's a hollow, not thirty yards off, that'll do for us."
Zeb led the way to the spot. It was indeed the fosse of a half-obliterated Roman camp, and ran at varying depth around a cluster of grassy mounds, the most salient of which--the praetorian--still served as a landmark for the Porthlooe fishing boats. But down in the fosse the pair were secure from all eyes. Not a word was spoken until they stood together at the bottom.
Here Zeb pulled out his watch once more. "We'd best be sharp," he said; "you must start in twenty minnits to get to the church in time."
"It would be interesting to know what you propose doing." The stranger sat down on the slope, picked a strip of sea-weed off his breeches, and looked up with a smile.
"I reckon you'll think it odd."
"Of that I haven't a doubt."
"Well, you've a pair o' pistols i' your pockets, an' they're loaded, I expect."
"I'd a notion of askin' 'ee, as a favour, to give and take a shot with me."
The stranger paused a minute before giving his answer.
"Can you fire a pistol?"
"I've let off a blunderbust, afore now, an' I suppose 'tis the same trick."
"And has it struck you that your body may be hard to dispose of? Or that, if found, it may cause me some inconvenience?"
"There's a quag on t'other side o' the Castle here. I han't time to go round an' point it out; but 'tis to be known by bein' greener than the rest o' the turf. What's thrown in there niver comes up, an' no man can dig for it. The folks'll give the press-gang the credit when I'm missin'--"
"You forget the mare and cart."
"Lead her back to the road, turn her face to home, an' fetch her a cut across th' ears. She always bolts if you touch her ears."
"And you really wish to die?"
"Oh, my God!" Zeb broke out; "would I be standin' here if I didn'?"
The stranger rose to his feet, and drew out his pistols slowly.
"It's a thousand pities," he said; "for I never saw a man develop character so fast."
He cocked the triggers, and handed the pistols to Zeb, to take his choice.
"Stand where you are, while I step out fifteen paces." He walked slowly along the fosse, and, at the end of that distance, faced about. "Shall I give the word?"
Zeb nodded, watching him sullenly.
"Very well. I shall count three slowly, and after that we can fire as we please. Are you ready?--stand a bit sideways. Your chest is a pretty broad target--that's right; I'm going to count. One--two--three--"
The word was hardly spoken before one of the pistols rang out. It was Zeb's; and Heaven knows whither his bullet flew. The smoke cleared away in a blue, filmy streak, and revealed his enemy standing where he stood before, with his pistol up, and a quiet smile on his face.
Still holding the pistol up, the stranger now advanced deliberately until he came to a halt about two paces from Zeb, who, with white face and set jaw, waited for the end. The eyes of the two men met, and neither flinched.
"Strip," commanded the stranger. "Strip--take off that jersey."
"Why not kill me without ado? Man, isn't this cruel?"
"Strip, I say."
Zeb stared at him for half a minute, like a man in a trance; and began to pull the jersey off.
"Now your shirt. Strip--till you are naked as a babe."
Zeb obeyed. The other laid his pistol down on the turf, and also proceeded to undress, until the two men stood face to face, stark naked.
"We were thus, or nearly thus, a month ago, when you gave me my life. Does it strike you that, barring our faces, we might be twin brothers? Now, get into my clothes, and toss me over your own!"
"What's the meanin' o't?" stammered Zeb, hoarsely.
"I am about to cry quits with you. Hurry; for the bride must be at the church by this."
"What's the meanin' o't?" Zeb repeated.
"Why, that you shall marry the girl. Steady--don't tremble. The banns are up in your name, and you shall walk into church, and the woman shall be married to Zebedee Minards. Stop, don't say a word, or I'll repent and blow your brains out. You want to know who I am, and what's to become of me. Suppose I'm the Devil; suppose I'm your twin soul, and in exchange for my life have given you the half of manhood that you lacked and I possessed; suppose I'm just a deserter from his Majesty's fleet, a poor devil of a marine, with gifts above his station, who ran away and took to privateering, and was wrecked at your doors. Suppose that I am really Zebedee Minards; or suppose that I heard your name spoken in Sheba kitchen, and took a fancy to wear it myself. Suppose that I shall vanish to-day in a smell of brimstone; or that I shall leave in irons in the hold of the frigate now in Troy harbour. What's her name?"
He was dressed by this time in Zeb's old clothes.
"Back to Plymouth to-night, an' then to the West Indies wi' a convoy."
"Hurry, then; don't fumble, or Ruby'll be tired of waiting. You'll find a pencil and scrap of paper in my breast pocket. Hand them over."
Zeb did so, and the stranger, seating himself again on the slope, tore the paper in half, and began to scribble a few lines on each piece. By the time he had finished and folded them up, Zeb stood before him dressed in the plum-coloured suit.
"Ay," said the stranger, looking him up and down, and sucking the pencil contemplatively; "she'll marry you out of hand."
"I doubt it."
"These notes will make sure. Give one to the farmer, and one to Ruby, as they stand by the chancel rails. But mainly it rests with you. Take no denial. Say you've come to make her your wife, and won't leave the church till you've done it. She's still the same woman as when she threw you over. Ah, sir, we men change our natures; but woman is always Eve. I suppose you know a short cut to the church? Very well. I shall take your cart and mare, and drive to meet the press-gang, who won't be in the sweetest of tempers just now. Come, what are you waiting for? You're ten minutes late as it is, and you can't be married after noon."
"Sir," said Zeb, with a white face; "it's a liberty, but will 'ee let me shake your hand?"
"I'll be cursed if I do. But I'll wish you good luck and a hard heart, and maybe ye'll thank me some day."
So Zeb, with a sob, turned and ran from him out of the fosse and towards a gap in the hedge, where lay a short cut through the fields. In the gap he turned and looked back. The stranger stood on the lip of the fosse, and waved a hand to him to hurry.