“Mind your head! Crikey! That was near, ’nother inch, and you’d ha’ crushed him like an eggshell.”
“Well, you told me to lower down.”
“No, I didn’t, stupid.”
“Yes, you did.”
“No, I didn’t. You’re half tipsy, or half asleep, or—”
“There, there, hold your tongue, Jem. I’m not hurt, and Mike thought you said lower away. That’s enough.”
“No, it arn’t enough, Mas’ Don. Your uncle said I was to soop’rintend, and a nice row there’d ha’ been when he come back if you hadn’t had any head left.”
“Wouldn’t have mattered much, Jem. Nobody would have cared.”
“Nobody would ha’ cared? Come, I like that. What would your mother ha’ said to me when I carried you home, and told her your head had been scrunched off by a sugar-cask?”
“You’re right, Mas’ Don. Nobody wouldn’t ha’ cared. You aren’t wanted here. Why don’t you strike for liberty, my lad, and go and make your fortun’ in furren parts?”
“Same as you have, Mike Bannock? Now just you look ye here. If ever I hears you trying to make Master Don unsettled again, and setting him agen his work, I tells Mr Chris’mas, and no begging won’t get you back on again. Fortun’ indeed! Why, you ragged, penny-hunting, lazy, drunken rub-shoulder, you ought to be ashamed of yourself!”
“And I arn’t a bit, Jem Wimble, not a bit. Never you mind him, Master Don, you strike for freedom. Make your uncle give you your father’s money, and then off you goes like a man to see life.”
“Now lookye here,” cried the sturdy, broad-faced young fellow who had first spoken, as he picked up a wooden lever used for turning over the great sugar-hogsheads lying in the yard, and hoisting them into a trolly, or beneath the crane which raised them into the warehouse. “Lookye here, Mike Bannock, I never did knock a man down with this here wooden bar, but if you gets stirring Mas’ Don again, has it you do, right across the back. Spang!”
“Be quiet, Jem, and put the bar down,” said Lindon Lavington, a dark, well set-up lad of seventeen, as he sat upon the head of a sugar-hogshead with his arms folded, slowly swinging his legs.
“No, I sha’n’t put the bar down, Mas’ Don. Your uncle left me in charge of the yard, and—what yer sitting on the sugar-barrel for when there’s a ’bacco hogshead close by? Now just you feel how sticky you are.”
Don got off the barrel, and made a face, as he proved with one hand the truth of the man’s words, and then rubbed his treacly fingers against the warehouse wall.
“Your mother’ll make a row about that, just as my Sally does when I get molasses on my clothes.”
“You should teach her to lick it off, Jemmy Wimble,” said the rough-looking, red-faced labourer, who had lowered down a sugar-hogshead so rapidly, that he had been within an inch of making it unnecessary to write Don Lavington’s life, from the fact of there being no life to write.
“You mind your own business, Mike,” said Jem, indignantly.
“That’s what I’m a-doing of, and a-waiting for orders, Mr Jem Wimble. He’s hen-pecked, Mas’ Don, that what’s the matter with him. Been married only three months, and he’s hen-pecked. Haw-haw-haw! Poor old cock-bird! Hen-pecked! Haw-haw-haw!”
Jem Wimble, general worker in the warehouse and yard of Josiah Christmas, West India merchant, of River Street, Bristol, gave Mike the labourer an angry look, as he turned as red as a blushing girl.
“Lookye here,” he cried angrily, as Don, who had reseated himself, this time on a hogshead crammed full of compressed tobacco-leaves from Baltimore, swung his legs, and looked on in a half-moody, half-amused way; “the best thing that could happen for Christmas’ Ward and for Bristol City, would be for the press-gang to get hold o’ you, and take you off to sea.”
“Haw-haw-haw!” laughed the swarthy, red-faced fellow. “Why don’t you give ’em the word, and have me pressed?”
“No coming back to be begged on then by Miss Kitty and Mas’ Don, after being drunk for a week. You’re a bad ’un, that’s what you are, Mike Bannock, and I wish the master wouldn’t have you here.”
“Not such a hard nut as you are, Jemmy,” said the man with a chuckle. “Sailors won’t take me—don’t want cripples to go aloft. Lookye here, Mas’ Don, there’s a leg.”
As he spoke, the great idle-looking fellow limped slowly, with an exaggerated display of lameness, to and fro past the door of the office.
“Get out, Mike,” said Don, as the man stopped. “I believe that’s nearly all sham.”
“That’s a true word, Mas’ Don,” cried Jem. “He’s only lame when he thinks about it. And now do please go on totting up, and let’s get these casks shifted ’fore your uncle comes back.”
“Well, I’m waiting, Jem,” cried the lad, opening a book he had under his arm, and in which a pencil was shut. “I could put down fifty, while you are moving one.”
“That’s all right, sir; that’s all right. I only want to keep things straight, and not have your uncle rowing you when he comes back. Seems to me as life’s getting to be one jolly row. What with my Sally at home, and your uncle here, and you always down in the mouth, and Mike not sticking to his work, things is as miserable as mizzar.”
“He’s hen-pecked, that’s what he is,” chuckled Mike, going to the handle of the crane. “Poor old Jemmy! Hen-pecked, that’s what’s the matter with him.”
“Let him alone, Mike,” said Don quietly.
“Right, Mas’ Don,” said the man; “but if I was you,” he murmured hoarsely, as Jem went into the warehouse, “I’d strike for liberty. I knows all about it. When your mother come to live with your uncle she give him all your father’s money, and he put it into the business. I know. I used to work here when you first come, only a little un, and a nice little un you was, just after your poor father died.”
Don’s brow wrinkled as he looked searchingly at the man.
“You’ve a right to half there is here, Mas’ Don; but the old man’s grabbing of it all for his gal, Miss Kitty, and has made your mother and you reg’lar servants.”
“It is not true, Mike. My uncle has behaved very kindly to my mother and me. He has invested my money, and given me a home when I was left an orphan.”
That is the nearest approach to the sound of Mike’s derisive laugh, one which made the lad frown and dart at him an angry look.
“Why, who told you that, my lad?”
“My mother, over and over again.”
“Ah, poor thing, for the sake o’ peace and quietness. Don’t you believe it, my lad. You’ve been werry kind to me, and begged me on again here when I’ve been ’most starving, and many’s the shillin’ you’ve give me, Mas’ Don, to buy comforts, or I wouldn’t say to you what I does now, and werry welcome a shilling would be to-day, Mas’ Don.”
“I haven’t any money, Mike.”
“Got no money, my lad? What a shame, when half of all this here ought to be yourn. Oh dear, what a cruel thing it seems! I’m very sorry for you, Mas’ Don, that I am, ’specially when I think of what a fine dashing young fellow like—”
“Don’t humbug, Mike.”
“Nay, not I, my lad; ’tarn’t likely. You know it’s true enough. You’re one of the young fellows as is kep’ out of his rights. I know what I’d do if I was you.”
“Not be always rubbing my nose again a desk. Go off to one o’ them bu’ful foreign countries as I’ve told you of, where there’s gold and silver and dymons, and birds jus’ like ’em; and wild beasts to kill, and snakes as long as the main mast. Ah! I’ve seen some sights in furren abroad, as what I’ve told you about’s like nothing to ’em. Look here, Mas’ Don, shall I stop on for an hour and tell you what I’ve seen in South America?”
“No, no, Mike; my uncle doesn’t like you to be with me.”
“Ah, and well I knows it. ’Cause I tells you the truth and he feels guilty, Mas’ Don.”
“And—and it only unsettles me,” cried the boy with a despairing look in his eyes. “Get on with your work, and I must get on with mine.”
“Ah, to be sure,” said the scoundrel with a sneer. “Work, work, work. You and me, Mas’ Don, is treated worse than the black niggers as cuts the sugar-canes down, and hoes the ’bacco in the plantations. I’m sorry for you.”
Lindon Lavington thrust his little account book in his breast, and walked hurriedly in the direction taken by the man Jem, entering directly after a low warehouse door, where rows of sugar-hogsheads lay, and there was a murmur and buzz made by the attracted flies.
Mike Bannock stood with his hands clasping the handle of the crane winch against which he leaned without moving, but his eyes were hard at work.
He followed Don with them till he had disappeared through the low dark doorway, then glanced at the closed gate leading into the busy street, and then at the open office door, a few yards away.
All was still, save the buzzing of the flies about the casks on that hot midsummer’s day, and without the trace of a limp, the man stepped rapidly into the office, but only to dart back again in alarm, for, all at once, there was a loud rattling noise of straps, chains, and heavy harness.
There was no cause for alarm. It was only the fat, sleepy horse in the trolly shafts, who, at the same time that he gave his nosebag a toss, shook himself violently to get rid of the flies which preferred his juices to the sugar oozing from many a hogshead’s seams.
Mike darted into the office again; the flies buzzed; the horse munched oats; the faint sound of Don’s voice in converse with Jem Wimble could he heard; then there was a faint click as if a desk had been shut down softly, and Mike stepped out again, gave a hasty glance round, and the next moment was standing dreamily with his eyes half-closed, grasping the handle of the crane winch as Don returned, closely followed by Jem Wimble.
“Now, Mas’ Don, I’ll just mark another,” said Jem, “and we’ll have him out.”
He took a lump of chalk from a ledge close by, and ascended a step ladder to a door about six feet above the spot where Mike stood, and Don stood with his book under his arm, his brow rugged, and a thoughtful look in his eyes.
Just then the small door in the yard gate was opened, and a sturdy-looking grey-haired man in snuff-coloured coat and cocked hat, drab breeches and gaiters, entered unseen by the pair, who had their backs to him.
“I ’member, Mas’ Don, when I were out in the Mary Anne five year ago. We’d got to Pannymah, when the skipper stood with his glass to his eye, looking at a strange kind o’ hobjick ashore, and he says to me, ‘Mike, my lad—’”
“You idle scoundrel! How many more times am I to tell you that I will not have my time wasted over those lying stories of yours? Lindon, am I ever to be able to trust you when business takes me away?”
The words came in short sharp tones, and the speaker’s dark eyes seemed to flash. The effect was marvellous.
Mike began to turn the handle at a rapid rate, winding up the rope till the pair of hooks used for grasping the great hogsheads rattled with their chains against the pulley wheels of the crane, and a shout came from the warehouse,—
“Whatcher doing of? Hold hard!”
“Stop, sir!” cried the stern-looking man to Mike, just as Jem appeared at the upper doorway and looked down.
“Oh!” he ejaculated. “Didn’t know as you was there, sir.”
“It is disgraceful, Lindon. The moment my back is turned you leave your desk to come and waste the men’s time. I am ashamed of you.”
Lindon’s forehead grew more wrinkled as Josiah Christmas, merchant of Bristol city, and his maternal uncle, walked into the office, whither the lad followed slowly, looking stubborn and ill-used, for Mike Bannock’s poison was at work, and in his youthful ignorance and folly, he felt too angry to attempt a frank explanation.
In fact, just then one idea pervaded his mind—two ideas—that his uncle was a tyrant, and that he ought to strike against his tyranny and be free.