Proctor the Drunkard by Louis Becke

Proctor, the ex-second mate of the island-trading brig Bandolier, crawled out from under the shelter of the overhanging rock where he had passed the night, and brushing off the thick coating of dust which covered his clothes from head to foot, walked quickly through the leafy avenues of Sydney Domain, leading to the city.

Sleeping under a rock in a public park is not a nice thing to do, but Proctor had been forced to do it for many weeks past. He didn't like it at first, but soon got used to it. It was better than having to ask old Mother Jennings for a bed at the dirty lodging-house, and being refused—with unnecessary remarks upon his financial position. The Sailors' Home was right enough; he could get a free bed there for the asking, and some tucker as well. But then at the Home he had to listen to prayers and religious advice, and he hated both, upon an empty stomach. No, he thought, the Domain was a lot better; every dirty "Jack Dog" at the Home knew he had been kicked out of sundry ships before he piled up the Bandolier, and they liked to comment audibly on their knowledge of the fact while he was eating his dinner among them—it's a way which A.B.'s have of "rubbing it in" to an officer down on his beam ends. Drunkard? Yes, of course he was, and everybody knew it. Why, even that sour-faced old devil of a door-keeper at the Home put a tract on his bed every evening. Curse him and his "Drunkard, beware!" and every other rotten tract on intemperance. Well, he had been sober for a week now—hadn't any money to get drunk with. If he had he certainly would get drunk, as quickly as he possibly could. Might as well get drunk as try to get a ship now. Why, every wharf-loafer knew him.

A hot feeling came to his cheeks and stayed there as he walked through the streets, for he seemed to hear every one laugh and mutter at him as he passed, "That's the boozy mate of the Bandolier. Ran her ashore in the Islands when he was drunk and drowned most of the hands."

Proctor was twenty-five when he began to drink. He had just been made master, and his good luck in making such quick passages set him off. Not that he then drank at sea; it was only when he came on shore and met so many of the passengers he had carried between Sydney and New Zealand that he went in for it. Then came a warning from the manager of the steamship company. That made him a bit careful—and vexed. And ill-luck made him meet a brother captain that night, and of course they had "a time" together, and Proctor was driven down in a cab to the ship and helped up the gangway by a wharfinger and a deck hand. The next morning he was asked to resign, and from that day his career was damned. From the command of a crack steamship to that of a tramp collier was a big come-down; but Proctor was glad to get the collier after a month's idleness. For nearly a year all went well. He had had a lesson, and did not drink now, not even on shore. A woman who had stood to him in his first disgrace had promised to marry him when the year was out, and that kept him straight. Then one day he received a cold intimation from his owners that he "had better look out for another ship," his services were no longer wanted. "Why?" he asked. Well, they said, they would be candid, they had heard he was a drinking man, and they would run no risks. Six months of shamefaced and enforced idleness followed; and then Proctor was partly promised a barque. Another man named Rothesay was working hard to get her, but Proctor beat him by a hair's breadth. He made two or three trips to California and back, and then, almost on the eve of his marriage, met Rothesay, who was now in command of a small island-trading steamer. Proctor liked Rothesay, and thought him a good fellow; Rothesay hated Proctor most fervently, hated him because he was in command of the ship he wanted himself, and hated him because he was to marry Nell Levison. Proctor did not know this (Nell Levison did), or he would have either knocked the handsome black-bearded, ever-smiling Captain Rothesay down, or told him to drink by himself. But he was no match for Rothesay's cunning, and readily swallowed his enemy's smiling professions of regard and good wishes for his married happiness. They drank together again and again, and, at eleven o'clock that night, just as the theatres were coming out, Rothesay suddenly left him, and Proctor found himself staggering across the street. A policeman took him to his hotel, where Proctor sank into a heavy, deadly stupor. He awoke at noon. Two letters were lying on his table. One, from the owners of his barque, asked him to call on them at ten o'clock that morning, the other was from Nell Levison. The latter was short but plain: "I shall never marry a drunkard. I never wish to see you again. I saw you last night." He dressed and went to the owners' office. The senior partner did not shake hands, but coldly bade him be seated. And in another minute Proctor learnt that it was known he had been seen drunk in the street, and that he could "look for another ship." He went out dazed and stupid.

For three days he kept up his courage, and then wrote to the owners of the barque and asked them to overlook the matter. He had served them well, he urged, and surely they would not ruin him for life. And Rothesay, to whom he showed the letter, said it was one of which no man need be ashamed. He would take it himself, he added, for he felt he was in some degree to blame for that fatal night. Take it he did, for he felt certain that it would not alter the decision of Messrs. Macpherson & Donald—he knew them too well for that. Then he came back to Proctor with a gloomy face, and shook his head. The wretched man knew what that meant, and asked him no questions. Rothesay, sneak and traitor as he was, felt some shame in his heart when, an hour later, Proctor held out his hand, thanked him, and bade him good-bye. "I'm clearing out," he said.

Then for six years Proctor was seen no more in Sydney. He went steadily to the devil elsewhere—mostly in the South Sea Islands, where he was dismissed from one vessel after another, first as skipper, then as mate, then as second mate. One day in a Fiji hotel he met a man—a stranger—who knew Rothesay well.

"What is he doing now?" asked Proctor.

"Don't know exactly. He's no friend of mine, although I was mate with him for two years. He married a girl that was engaged to another man—a poor devil of a chap named Proctor—married her a week after Proctor got the run from his ship for being drunk. And every one says that it was Rothesay who made him drunk, as he was mad to get the girl. And I have no doubt it's true. Rothesay is the two ends and bight of a damned sneak."

Proctor nodded, but said nothing.

He drank now whenever he could get at liquor, ashore or afloat. Sometimes he would steal it. Yet somehow he always managed to get another ship. He knew the islands well, and provided he could be kept sober there was not a better man to be found in the Pacific labour trade. And the "trade"—i.e., the recruiting of native labourers for the Fijian and Queensland sugar plantations from among the New Hebrides and Solomon Groups—was a dangerous pursuit. But Proctor was always a lucky man. He had come down to a second mate's berth now on the brig Bandolier; but then he was "recruiter" as well, and with big wages, incurred more risks than any other man on the ship. Perhaps he had grown careless of his life, which was lonely enough, for though not a morose man, he never talked with his shipmates. So for two years or more he cruised in the Bandolier among the woolly-haired, naked cannibals of the Solomon Group and thereabout, landing at places where no other recruiter would get out of his boat, and taking a box of trade goods with him, sit calmly down on the beach surrounded by savages who might without a moment's warning riddle him with spears or club him from behind. But Proctor knew no fear, although his armed boat's crew and the crew of the covering boat would call to him to get aboard again and shove off. Other labour ships there were cruising on the same ground who lost men often enough by spear or bullet or poisoned arrow, and went back to Fiji or Queensland with perhaps not a score of "recruits," but Proctor never lost a single man, and always filled the crazy old Bandolier with a black and savage cargo. Then, once in port again, his enemy seized him, and for a week at a time he would lie drunk in the local hells, till the captain sought him out and brought him on board again. Going back to the recruiting grounds with an empty ship and with no danger to apprehend from a sudden rush of naked figures, the captain gave him as much liquor as he wanted, else Proctor would have stolen it. And one night he was drunk on his watch, ran the Bandolier upon a reef, and all hands perished but himself and six others. One boat was saved, and then followed long days of hunger and thirst and bitter agony upon the sea under a blazing sun, but Proctor brought the boat and crew safely to the Queensland coast. A month later he was in Sydney penniless, and again "looking for a ship." But no one would have him now; his story was too well known.

And so for weeks past he had slept in the park at night, and wandered down about the wharves during the day. Sometimes he earned a few shillings, most of which went in cheap rum.

Half an hour's walk through the long shady avenue of Moreton Bay figs, and then he emerged suddenly into the noise and rattle of the city. Four coppers was all the money he possessed, and unless he could earn a shilling or two during the day on the wharves he would have to starve on the morrow. He stopped outside the Herald office presently, and pushing his way through a number of half-starved outcasts like himself, he read down the "Wanted" column of the paper. And suddenly hope sprang up in his heart as he saw this—

     WANTED, for the Solomon Islands Labour trade, four able
     Seamen used to the work.    High wages to competent men.
     Apply to Harkniss & Co., George Street.

Ten minutes later he was at Harkness & Company's office waiting to see the manager. Ten o'clock, the clerks said, would be time enough to come. Proctor said he would wait. He feared that there would be other applicants, and was determined to see the manager before any one else. But he need not have been so anxious. Men such as Harkness & Company wanted were hard to get, and the firm were not disposed to be particular as to their character or antecedents, so long as they could do the "work" and hold their tongues afterward. Ten o'clock came, and at half-past ten Proctor and two other men went out of the office each with a £1 note in his pocket, and with orders to proceed to Melbourne by steamer, and there join the barque Kate Rennie. Before the steamer left for Melbourne, Proctor had parted with half of his pound for another man's discharge. He did not want to be known as Proctor of the Bandolier if he could help it. So he was now Peter Jensen; and Peter Jensen, a hard-up Norwegian A.B., was promoted—on paper—to John Proctor, master. At Melbourne they found the barque ready for sea, and they were at once taken to the shipping office to meet the captain and sign articles, and Proctor's heart beat fiercely with a savage joy when he heard the voice of the man who had stolen Nell Levison from him! So Rothesay was the captain of the Kate Rennie! And the Solomon Islands was a good place to pay off one's old scores.

The Kate Rennie sailed the next day. As soon as the tug cast off, the crew were mustered on the main-deck, and the watches and boats' crew picked. Peter Jensen, A.B., was standing furthest away when the captain's eye fell on him.

"What's your name?" he asked, and then in an instant his face paled—he recognised the man.

Jensen made no answer. His eyes were fixed in a dull stare upon the features of a little boy of six, who had come up from the cabin and had caught hold of Rothesay's hand. For Nell Levison's face was before him again. Then with an effort he withdrew his gaze from the child and looked down at the deck.

"You can have him, Mr. Williams," said Rothesay curtly to the mate.

From that day till the barque made the Solomon Islands, Rothesay watched the man he had injured, but Jensen, A.B., gave no sign. He did his work well, and spoke to no one except when spoken to. And when the boy Allan Rothesay came on deck and prattled to the crew, Jensen alone took no notice of him. But whenever he heard the child speak, the memory of the woman he had lost came back to him, and he longed for his revenge.

One night, as the barque was slipping quietly through the water, and the misty mountain heights of Bougainville Island showed ghostly grey under myriad stars, Rothesay came on deck an hour or two before the dawn. Jensen was at the wheel, and the captain walked aft, seated himself near him, and lit a cigar. Williams, the mate, was at the break of the poop, and out of earshot.

Presently Rothesay walked over to the wheel and stood beside the steersman, glancing first at the compass, and then aloft at the white swelling canvas. The barque was close-hauled and the course "full and by."

"Is she coming up at all?" said Rothesay quietly, speaking in a low voice.

"No, sir," answered Jensen steadily, but looking straight before him; "she did come up a point or so a little while back, but fell off again; but the wind keeps pretty steady, sir."

Rothesay stood by him irresolutely, debating within himself. Then he walked up to the mate.

"Mr. Williams, send another man to the wheel, and tell Jensen to come below. I want to speak to him about Bougainville; he knows the place well, I have been told. And as neither you nor I do, I may get something out of him worth knowing."

"Ay, ay, sir," answered the Welsh mate. "But he's mighty close over it, anyway. I've hardly heard him open his mouth yet."

A minute or two passed, and Jensen was standing at the cabin-door, cap in hand.

"Come in," said Rothesay, turning up the cabin lamp, and then he said quietly, "Sit down, Proctor; I want to talk to you quietly. You see, I know you."

The seaman stood silent a moment with drooping eyes. "My name is Jensen, sir," he said sullenly.

"Very well, just as you like. But I sent for you to tell you that I had not forgotten our former friendship, and—and I want to prove it, if you will let me."

"Thank you, sir," was the reply, and the man's eyes met Rothesay's for one second, and Rothesay saw that they burned with a strange, red gleam; "but you can do nothing for me. I am no longer Proctor, the disgraced and drunken captain, but Jensen, A.B. And," with sudden fury, "I want to be left to myself."

"Proctor," and Rothesay rose to his feet, and placed his hands on the table, "listen to me. You may think that I have treated you badly. My wife died two years ago, and I——"

Proctor waved his hand impatiently. "Let it pass if you have wronged me. But, because I got drunk and lost my ship, I don't see how you are to blame for it."

A look of relief came into Rothesay's face. Surely the man had not heard whom he had married, and there was nothing to fear after all.

For a minute or so neither spoke, then Proctor picked up his cap.

"Proctor," said Rothesay, with a smile, "take a glass of grog with me for the sake of old times, won't you!"

"No, thank you, sir," he replied calmly, and then without another word he walked out of the cabin, and presently Rothesay heard him take the wheel again from the man who had relieved him.

Two days later the Kate Rennie sailed round the north cape of Bougainville, and then bore up for a large village on the east coast named Numa Numa, which Rothesay hoped to make at daylight on the following morning.

At midnight Jensen came to the wheel again. The night was bright with the light of shining stars, and the sea, although the breeze was brisk, was smooth as a mountain lake, only the rip, ripy rip of the barque's cutwater and the bubbling sounds of her eddying wake broke the silence of the night. Ten miles away the verdure-clad peaks and spurs of lofty Bougainville stood clearly out, silhouetted against the sea-rim on the starboard hand. The wind was fair abeam and the ship as steady as a church, and Proctor scarce glanced at the compass at all. The course given to him was W.S.W., which, at the rate the ship was slipping through the water, would bring her within two miles of the land by the time he was relieved. Then she would have to go about and make another "short leg," and, after that, she could lay right up to Numa Numa village.

Late in the day Rothesay had lowered one of the ship's boats, whose timbers had opened under the rays of the torrid sun, and was keeping her towing astern till she became watertight. Presently Proctor heard a voice calling him.

"Peter, I say, Peter, you got a match?"

Looking astern, he saw that the native who was steering the boat had hauled her up close up under the stern.

"Yes," he answered, taking a box of matches out of his pocket and throwing them to the native sailor. "Are you tired of steering that boat, Tommy?"

"No, not yet; but I wanted to smoke. When four bell strike I come aboard, Mr. Williams say."

Two bells struck, and then Proctor heard Williams, who was sitting down at the break of the poop, say, "Hallo, young shaver, what do you want on deck?"

"Oh, Mr. Williams, it is so hot below, and my father said I could come on deck. See, I've got my rug and pillow."

"All right, sonny," said the mate good-naturedly; "here, lie down here on the skylight."

The child lay down and seemed to sleep, but Proctor could see that his eyes were wide open and watched the stars.

Four bells struck, and Proctor was relieved by a white seaman, and another native came to relieve the man who was steering the boat, which was now hauled up under the counter. Just then, as the mate called out, "Ready about," Proctor touched the child on the arm.

"Allan, would you like to come in the boat with me?"

The boy laughed with delight. "Oh, yes, Peter, I would like it."

Proctor turned to the native who was waiting to relieve the man who was steering the boat. "You can go for'ard, Jimmy, I'll take the boat for you."

The native grinned. "All right, Peter, I no like boat," and in another moment Proctor had passed the child down into the boat, into the arms of the native sailor whose place he was taking, and quickly followed. As she drifted astern, the Kate Rennie went about, the towline tautened out, and a delighted laugh broke from the boy as he sat beside Proctor and saw the white canvas of the barque looming up before him.

"Hush!" said Proctor, and his hand trembled as he grasped the steer-oar. Then he drew the child to his bosom and caressed him almost fiercely.

For half an hour the barque slipped along, and Proctor sat and steered and smoked and watched the child, who now slumbered at his feet. Then the stars darkened over, a black cloud arose to the eastward, the wind died away, and the mate's voice hailed him to come alongside, as a heavy squall was coming on. "And you'll have trouble with the captain for taking his boy in that boat," added Williams.

"Ay, ay, sir," answered Proctor, as he looked at the cloud to windward, which was now quickly changing to a dullish grey; and then he sprang forward and cut the tow-line with his sheath-knife.

Five minutes passed. Then came a cry of agony from the barque, as Rothesay, who had rushed on deck at Williams's call, placed his hand on the tow-line and began to haul it in.

"Oh, my God, Williams, the line has parted. Boat ahoy, there, where are you?"

And then with a droning hum the squall smote the Kate Rennie with savage fury, and nearly threw her over on her beam ends; and Proctor the Drunkard slewed the boat round and let her fly before the hissing squall towards the dimmed outline of Bougainville.

For two days the Kate Rennie cruised off the northern end of Bougainville, searching for the missing boat. Then Rothesay beat back to Numa Numa and anchored, and carefully examined the coast with his boats. But no trace or Proctor nor the child was ever found. Whether the boat was dashed to pieces upon the reef or had been blown past the north end of the island and thence out upon that wide expanse of ocean that lies between the Solomons and New Guinea was never known, and the fete of Proctor the Drunkard and his innocent victim will for ever remain one of the many mysteries of the Western Pacific till the sea gives up its dead.