OVER THE PUNCH-BOWL

‘Well, mate!’ shouted Olver, the ferryman, entering the house with a swagger, and casting his cap on the table. ‘I’m come to spend the evenin’ with you. Dang it, in November, they are too long, and one sickens of bein’ by one’s self. Why! What is the meanin’ of this? Women, women about? I don’t half like it.’
‘I do not fit my house to your likings,’ retorted Rattenbury curtly.
‘Hang it, no. I don’t expect it of you. But, by George, it is not I only who find the evenings dull alone, I see. Who would have thought this of you at your time of life, and with your grey hairs?’
‘If you can’t keep a civil tongue in your head, you can take up your cap and sheer off.’
Olver struck his fist on the table.
‘I know better than that. No offence meant—then none should be taken, mate. Come, we’ll have an evenin’, and talk over old times.’
‘You are welcome to stay if you will keep in order your saucy tongue.’
‘Old times! Old times on the Paycock! Ah, cap’n!’
Rattenbury signed to Dench to take a seat, and called to Jane Marley to serve supper.
In a very short while the ruffle on Job’s temper and countenance was allayed. Olver knew his man, knew that he dearly loved to chat over past days, to furbish up remembrance of old scenes of adventure, recall old comrades, and fight old battles. And situated where Captain Rattenbury was, on that side of the Axe where the only persons associated with the water were Preventive men, and all others were farmers and labourers on the land, he was thrown on Olver as an associate.
[31]
For reasons best known to himself he kept the men in the service of the Revenue at arm’s-length, and such as were connected with the soil, and whose talk was of bullocks, were not to his taste.
As a man advances in life he makes imperceptibly a volte-face. He turns his back on the future as devoid of interest to him, that he may gaze fondly at the ground whence he started. Youth values what it can acquire only for what it can make out of it; age appreciates what it holds in hand only for what it was and for the efforts expended in modelling it to what it now is. The present is appreciated, not as containing in its womb that which will be, but for the faded traces perceived in it of past loveliness. As the threads that connect man with his early career break, those that remain are clung to with intense tenacity.
Rattenbury did not like Dench, he even regarded him with repugnance; yet, as there were none other in the place who had been in any way linked with his early life, he endured him as one with whom he could converse with pleasure.
But it would be a misconception to suppose that Job Rattenbury lived for the past alone, and that he was without an eye for the future. As far as his own future was concerned he was indifferent, but his ambition with regard to Jack had a forward look.
Days close in rapidly in November. Rattenbury drew the little blind over his window, and excluded the fishy glimmer of the dying day. He did not light a candle. Candles in those times were of tallow, and were a constant annoyance, as they needed periodic snuffing, but he threw more wood upon the fire, and the whole room gleamed with saffron light that scintillated in the burnished copper and brass articles on the mantelshelf and in the Bristol lustre crockery on the dresser, but nowhere more brilliantly than in those living agates, the eyes of Winefred.
Mrs. Marley was engaged at the fire, and was turning out that same beefsteak pudding on which at the moment all Winefred’s thoughts and desires hung.
Olver’s eye observed her every movement, but it did so furtively, and he was careful that neither she nor Job should notice to what an extent she engrossed his attention.
When the supper was served, Mrs. Marley and Winefred sat and ate along with the two men, and the girl did full justice to the pudding. That done the women rose, cleared away the[32] dishes, leaving only tumblers and the ale-jug to the master and his guest, that they might smoke and drink and converse together without restraint.
So, as ancient cronies, the captain and the ferryman fell into talk upon times past beyond recall save as a memory, and the Paycock was often in their mouths. And as they drank they looked into the fire and drew long pulls at their pipes, and the mistrust, the aversion entertained by Rattenbury ebbed away.
There rose a succession of scenes before his fancy, lighted up with a perhaps unreal halo, such as affection casts over the past, associated with pride at the recollection of a daring and a dashing youth.
All at once Winefred traversed the kitchen.
Job caught his violin, and signalled to her with the bow.
‘Child,’ said he, ‘see if you can dance.’
He threw a crimson kerchief on the floor.
‘Step on that. Trip and twirl in the midst, and do not ruffle the rag. I have seen it done, and by men.’
The girl looked at him incredulously, and with perplexity.
That was not dancing, she thought—not such as she had conceived dancing to be.
‘Olver,’ said Job, and he tapped the ferryman on the head with his fiddlestick, ‘show the little maid how it is to be done.’
‘I can’t dance,’ replied Olver sullenly, ‘and what is more, I won’t be knocked about the head.’
‘Yes, you will,’ retorted Rattenbury, and struck again, contemptuously.
‘You will do and endure anything for a glass of grog and beefsteak pudding. See! Jane shall bring in the bowl and I will brew. The kettle is singing. Dance you shall, or drink only small beer. Stand up.’ Then he put the fiddle under his chin, and struck up a hornpipe.
The clumsy, sulky boatman was constrained to go through some of the evolutions of a dance, to the measure played by Captain Rattenbury. But he did it badly, and Job laid his violin on his knees with a gesture of impatience.
‘It is like a porpoise rolling,’ said he. ‘Come, Jane, fetch the bowl and lemons and sugar. I have promised it. After the brew I will teach the little wench how to perform.’
He stood up, signed to Mrs. Marley, who took a large iron-stone china basin from the dresser, wiped it out and set it on the table. Then from a cupboard she brought the condiments, and Job from a window box produced fine old Jamaica rum.
10Next, fetching from a drawer a punch-ladle of whalebone, with silver bowl into which was let a guinea, he roared out:
‘Fill me a bowl, a mighty bowl,
Large as my capacious soul.
Vast as my thirst is, let it have
Depth enough to be my grave.
—I mean the grave of all my care,
For I design to bury it there.’
He flourished his ladle as Mrs. Marley brought in hot water from the puffing kettle.
The fragrance diffused itself through the room, as the ripe, dark rum was poured in, the nutmeg grated, and the slices of lemon were thrown in to swim on the aromatic, generous liquor.
Alas for the punch-bowl! It was one of the institutions of the past. It sent a steam of goodwill that diffused itself over those congregated around it! It mellowed the asperities and sweetened the crudities of those who brimmed their glasses from it. What choice stories, what melodious songs, what sportive sallies did it call forth! And the host ladling forth the spicy liquor was brought into intimate and affectionate relationship with his guests. He was like the sun diffusing warmth, light, life to the planets round. That was quite another thing to the butler decanting champagne into a glass. With the punch-bowl something has passed away out of English social life that cannot well be replaced.
‘There, Olver,’ said the captain; ‘it was worth attempting and failing in dance to have a smack of such a drink of the gods as this?’
Job was in good humour.
‘Now, little maid,’ said he, ‘and you, Olver; and you, Jane, fill out for the girl a thimbleful. I give the toast of the evening, Success to the undertaking.’
‘Success to the undertaking,’ said Olver.
‘I should like to know what the undertaking is before I drink it,’ said Winefred.
‘That is no concern of yours.’
‘Then,’ said she, ‘success to every honest and daylight undertaking.’
Job and the boatman looked at each other and laughed.
‘Come,’ said Rattenbury, throwing himself into his seat, ‘let us see if you are as nimble with your toes as with your wits. Dance.’
The imperiousness of his manner impressed all with the sense that he must be obeyed.
‘I cannot dance like Master Dench,’ said Winefred, ‘I require teaching.’
‘I trow not,’ retorted the captain. ‘If you have music in your soul, dance you can and dance you will. When I touch the strings every nerve in your frame will tremble in reply. Teach you to dance! Who teaches the gulls? Who the yellow butterflies in spring? Who the leaves of the birch? Who the shining-bodied flies of summer? You will dance without teaching if there be music in you. If you have none, no instruction will make of you aught but a bungler like him——’ and had not Olver withdrawn his head it would have been tapped once more.
‘Winefred,’ said Rattenbury, ‘I know you have music. With a plaintive melody I rocked you to sleep, with a lively one I shall make you skip. Dance!’
He drew the bow over the strings, and began a lively air.
Pleased at his commendation, and eager to oblige, and finding his command consonant with her inclination, she at once tripped on to the red kerchief that still lay on the floor, and moved her feet and clapped her hands, balanced herself now on one toe then on the other, responsive to the music. It was as Rattenbury had said, the melody provoked movement, and every change in the air produced corresponding action in the dancer. Now it was allegro, then andante, now grave, and then a riot of mad and merry flutter.
‘Well done!’ shouted Rattenbury. ‘By Moses, the little wench is heated. Olver, you could not have been brought to that. No teaching would have done that. Every nerve in the girl leaped, every pulse bounded when I touched a fiddlestring.’
The boatman growled something about being old and stout.
‘Olver, if you cannot dance you can sing—or if you have no music in your organ you can bellow. Join with me, and we will have the Lights up channel.’
Then he broke forth:
‘Farewell and adieu to you, Spanish ladies,
Farewell and adieu to you, ladies of Spain;
For we’ve received orders to sail for Old England,
But we hope in a short time to see you again.
We’ll rant and we’ll roar like true British sailors,
We’ll rant and we’ll roar across the salt sea,
Until we strike soundings in the Channel of England,
From Ushant to Scilly be leagues thirty-three.’
[35]
‘Now mark,’ said the captain, waving his bow and indicating points in the room. ‘The first light we make, it is called the Dodman. That is after leaving Scilly—there she is, shining out on the lea like a star. The Ram’s Head—that is next—shining yonder. Then Plymouth, next Start Point, and after that the light of the Isle of Wight. We steer past Beechy, by Farley, by Dungeness until we arrive at the South Foreland light. You see, it’s like a picture; all of the points come up one after another like the stars in the belt of Orion. Now we will sing again:
‘Now the signal is made for the grand fleet to anchor,
In the Downs at the nightfall to lay up the fleet,
Then stand by your cat-stoppers, see clear the shank-painters,
Haul up the clue-garnets, stick out tacking and sheet.
Let every man toss off a full flowing bumper,
Let every man toss off a full flowing bowl,
For we’ll drink and be jolly, and drown melancholy,
So here is a health to each true-hearted soul.’
Rattenbury’s face glowed with pleasure. He continued for a while playing variations on the theme, as again in memory he came up the Channel, and smelt the breeze, and heard the hiss of the water, and saw the twinkle of the lights succeeding each other.
Then he laid down his violin and said, ‘Ah, Winefred! you tangle up my kerchief into a knot on the floor. Before long you will be able to dance on it and skip off, leaving it smooth as when laid down.’
‘Then,’ said the girl, ‘Mr. Dench must not have gambolled on it first. I have done my best to smooth what he ruffled.’
‘Come now,’ said the captain, ‘Jane, let us hear you sing.’
Without hesitation she struck up: ‘Early one morning, just as the sun was rising,’ and Job accompanied her, chiming on the strings. A pathetic song to a plaintive melody, but the effect on the singer was not pleasing. On the contrary, as she sang of the woes of the forsaken maiden, her face darkened, its lines grew deep, and her brow contracted. She did not observe the intensity with which Dench watched her.
‘Remember the vows that you made to your Mary;
Remember the bower where you vowed to be true;
Oh, don’t deceive me; oh, never leave me!
How should you use a poor maiden so?’
[36]
The captain noticed the gathering cloud, and turning to the ferryman said:
‘Come, Olver, it is your turn. On my soul I am enjoying myself famously. I only wish Jack were here. Sing, lad, sing.’
Then the boatman began to roar out a ballad.
He had not gone far before Mrs. Marley snatched her daughter to her and hurried out of the room. At the same moment down came the end of Job’s fiddlestick on his head.
‘You dog!’ said he. ‘What made you sing such a ditty as that before women and children?’
‘What made me?’ replied Olver sulkily, as he rubbed his head. ‘Why just this—that I wanted to be rid of them. How can we relish our evening when we have such as these interloping and spoiling our happiness?’
‘Whose house is this? Whose punch is this? Whose pleasure is concerned?’ roared the captain. ‘I shall have in here just whom I will, without asking your leave; and if I suffer an ill-conditioned cur to sit here at any time, it is that I may have the satisfaction of kicking him if he misconducts himself.’
‘Keep your fiddlestick off my head.’
‘I shall rap your thick skull whenever you misbehave.’
‘I will break it if you do.’
‘You dare not. There.’ He struck him again.
Olver’s face became purple, but he did not fulfil his threat.
‘It was for your good that I drove them away,’ said Dench in a low tone. ‘You do not know what you are about, taking this woman into your house.’
‘I should think I knew better than you.’
‘No, captain, you mistake. Have you considered how folk will talk, what they will say about it?’
‘Let them talk and say what they will, I care not one doit.’
‘You do not know the woman as well as I myself do. She will twist you about her little finger.’
Job laughed scornfully.
‘Bah!’ said he. ‘Look at me—at my bulk, there is no twisting of that.’
‘She will find out everything you desire to keep concealed.’
‘Suppose there be nothing?’
‘What, there is the undertaking for Thursday.’
‘Pshaw! She knows which way her bread is buttered.’
‘You, captain, may have a masterful will, and that you have one I do not deny. But she has one ten times as masterful as yours. She will hold you in her closed hands, shutting them[37] about you, if you suffer it, or if you cross her she will strike you in the face.’
‘She will do neither. I have ruled men in my day, and such men.’
‘But not one of them a match for her. You never before have had to do with such a woman as this. If she thought she could benefit her child, it is my belief she would regard no one, stick at nothing.’
‘And that,’ said Rattenbury, ‘that is precisely what I admire in her, ay, and respect. It is with her and Winefred as it is with me and Jack.’