A Benefit Performance
by W. W. Jacobs
In the small front parlour of No. 3, Mermaid Passage, Sunset Bay, Jackson Pepper, ex-pilot, sat in a state of indignant collapse, tenderly feeling a cheek on which the print of hasty fingers still lingered.
The room, which was in excellent order, showed no signs of the tornado which had passed through it, and Jackson Pepper, looking vaguely round, was dimly reminded of those tropical hurricanes he had read about which would strike only the objects in the path, and leave all others undisturbed.
In this instance he had been the object, and the tornado, after obliterating him, had passed up the small staircase which led from the room, leaving him listening anxiously to its distant mutterings.
To his great discomfort the storm showed signs of coming up again, and he had barely time to effect an appearance of easy unconcern, which accorded but ill with the flush afore-mentioned, when a big, red-faced woman came heavily downstairs and burst into the room.
“You have made me ill again,” she said severely, “and now I hope you are satisfied with your work. You’ll kill me before you have done with me!”
The ex-pilot shifted on his chair.
“You’re not fit to have a wife,” continued Mrs. Pepper, “aggravating them and upsetting them! Any other woman would have left you long ago!”
“We’ve only been married three months,” Pepper reminded her.
“Don’t talk to me!” said his wife; “it seems more like a lifetime!”
“It seems a long time to ME” said the ex-pilot, plucking up a little courage.
“That’s right!” said his wife, striding over to where he sat. “Say you’re tired of me; say you wish you hadn’t married me! You coward! Ah! if my poor first husband was only alive and sitting in that chair now instead of you, how happy I would be!”
“If he likes to come and take it he’s welcome!” said Pepper; “it’s my chair, and it was my father’s before me, but there’s no man living I would sooner give it to than your first. Ah! he knew what he was about when the Dolphin went down, he did. I don’t blame him, though.”
“What do you mean?” demanded his wife.
“It’s my belief that he didn’t go down with her,” said Pepper, crossing over to the staircase and standing with his hand on the door.
“Didn’t go down with her?” repeated his wife scornfully. “What became of him, then? Where’s he been this thirty years?”
“In hiding!” said Pepper spitefully, and passed hastily upstairs.
The room above was charged with memories of the late lamented. His portrait in oils hung above the mantel-piece, smaller portraits– specimens of the photographer’s want of art–were scattered about the room, while various personal effects, including a mammoth pair of sea- boots, stood in a corner. On all these articles the eye of Jackson Pepper dwelt with an air of chastened regret.
“It ‘ud be a rum go if he did turn up after all,” he said to himself softly, as he sat on the edge of the bed. “I’ve heard of such things in books. I dessay she’d be disappointed if she did see him now. Thirty years makes a bit of difference in a man.”
“Jackson!” cried his wife from below, “I’m going out. If you want any dinner you can get it; if not, you can go without it!”
The front door slammed violently, and Jackson, advancing cautiously to the window, saw the form of his wife sailing majestically up the passage. Then he sat down again and resumed his meditations.
“If it wasn’t for leaving all my property I’d go,” he said gloomily. “There’s not a bit of comfort in the place! Nag, nag, nag, from morn till night! Ah, Cap’n Budd, you let me in for a nice thing when you went down with that boat of yours. Come back and fill them boots again; they’re too big for me.”
He rose suddenly and stood gaping in the centre of the room, as a mad, hazy idea began to form in his brain. His eyes blinked and his face grew white with excitement. He pushed open the little lattice window, and sat looking abstractedly up the passage on to the bay beyond. Then he put on his hat, and, deep in thought, went out.
He was still thinking deeply as he boarded the train for London next morning, and watched Sunset Bay from the window until it disappeared round the curve. So many and various were the changes that flitted over his face that an old lady, whose seat he had taken, gave up her intention of apprising him of the fact, and indulged instead in a bitter conversation with her daughter, of which the erring Pepper was the unconscious object.
In the same preoccupied fashion he got on a Bayswater omnibus, and waited patiently for it to reach Poplar. Strange changes in the landscape, not to be accounted for by the mere lapse of time, led to explanations, and the conductor–a humane man, who said he had got an idiot boy at home–personally laid down the lines of his tour. Two hours later he stood in front of a small house painted in many colours, and, ringing the bell, inquired for Cap’n Crippen.
In response to his inquiry, a big man, with light blue eyes and a long grey beard, appeared, and, recognising his visitor with a grunt of surprise, drew him heartily into the passage and thrust him into the parlour. He then shook hands with him, and, clapping him on the back, bawled lustily for the small boy who had opened the door.
“Pot o’ stout, bottle o’ gin, and two long pipes,” said he, as the boy came to the door and eyed the ex-pilot curiously.
At all these honest preparations for his welcome the heart of Jackson grew faint within him.
“Well, I call it good of you to come all this way to see me,” said the captain, after the boy had disappeared; “but you always was warm- hearted, Pepper. And how’s the missis?”
“Shocking!” said Pepper, with a groan.
“Ill?” inquired the captain.
“Ill-tempered,” said Pepper. “In fact, cap’n, I don’t mind telling you, she’s killing me–slowly killing me!”
“Pooh!” said Crippen. “Nonsense! You don’t know how to manage her!”
“I thought perhaps you could advise me,” said the artful Pepper. “I said to myself yesterday, ‘Pepper, go and see Cap’n Crippen. What he don’t know about wimmen and their management ain’t worth knowing! If there’s anybody can get you out of a hole, it’s him. He’s got the power, and, what’s more, he’s got the will!'”
“What causes the temper?” inquired the captain, with his most judicial air, as he took the liquor from his messenger and carefully filled a couple of glasses.
“It’s natural!” said his friend ruefully. “She calls it having a high spirit herself. And she’s so generous. She’s got a married niece living in the place, and when that gal comes round and admires the things–my things–she gives ’em to her! She gave her a sofa the other day, and, what’s more, she made me help the gal to carry it home!”
“Have you tried being sarcastic?” inquired the captain thoughtfully.
“I have,” said Pepper, with a shiver. “The other day I said, very nasty, ‘Is there anything else you’d like, my dear?’ but she didn’t understand it.”
“No?” said the captain.
“No,” said Pepper. “She said I was very kind, and she’d like the clock; and, what’s more, she had it too! Red-‘aired hussy!”
The captain poured out some gin and drank it slowly. It was evident he was thinking deeply, and that he was much affected by his friend’s troubles.
“There is only one way for me to get clear,” said Pepper, as he finished a thrilling recital of his wrongs, “and that is, to find Cap’n Budd, her first.”
“Why, he’s dead!” said Crippen, staring hard. “Don’t you waste your time looking for him!”
“I’m not going to,” said Pepper; “but here’s his portrait. He was a big man like you; he had blue eyes and a straight handsome nose, like you. If he’d lived to now he’d be almost your age, and very likely more like you than ever. He was a sailor; you’ve been a sailor.”
The captain stared at him in bewilderment.
“He had a wonderful way with wimmen,” pursued Jackson hastily; “you’ve got a wonderful way with wimmen. More than that, you’ve got the most wonderful gift for acting I’ve ever seen. Ever since the time when you acted in that barn at Bristol I’ve never seen any actor I can honestly say I’ve liked–never! Look how you can imitate cats–better than Henry Irving himself!”
“I never had much chance, being at sea all my life,” said Crippen modestly.
“You’ve got the gift,” said Pepper impressively. “It was born in you, and you’ll never leave off acting till the day of your death. You couldn’t if you tried–you know you couldn’t!”
The captain smiled deprecatingly.
“Now, I want you to do a performance for my benefit,” continued Pepper. “I want you to act Cap’n Budd, what was lost in the Dolphin thirty years ago. There’s only one man in England I’d trust with the part, and that’s you.”
“Act Cap’n Budd!” gasped the astonished Crippen, putting down his glass and staring at his friend.
“The part is written here,” said the ex-pilot, producing a note-book from his breast pocket and holding it out to his friend. I’ve been keeping a log day by day of all the things she said about him, in the hopes of catching her tripping, but I never did. There’s notes of his family, his ships, and a lot of silly things he used to say, which she thinks funny.”
“I couldn’t do it!” said the captain seriously, as he took the book.
“You could do it if you liked,” said Pepper. “Besides, think what a spree it’ll be for you. Learn it by heart, then come down and claim her. Her name’s Martha.”
“What good ‘ud it do you if I did?” inquired the captain. “She’d soon find out!”
“You come down to Sunset Bay,” said Pepper, emphasising his remarks with his forefinger; “you claim your wife; you allude carefully to the things set down in this book; I give Martha back to you and bless you both. Then”–
“Then what?” inquired Crippen anxiously.
“You disappear!” concluded Pepper triumphantly; “and, of course, believing her first husband is alive, she has to leave me. She’s a very particular woman; and, besides that, I’d take care to let the neighbours know. I’m happy, you’re happy, and, if she’s not happy, why, she don’t deserve to be.”
“I’ll think it over,” said Crippen, “and write and let you know.”
“Make up your mind now,” urged Pepper, reaching over and patting him encouragingly upon the shoulder. “If you promise to do it, the thing’s as good as done. Lord! I think I see you now, coming in at that door and surprising her. Talk about acting!”
“Is she what you’d call a good-looking woman?” inquired Crippen.
“Very handsome!” said Pepper, looking out of the window.
“I couldn’t do it!” said the captain. “It wouldn’t be right and fair to her.”
“I don’t see that!” said Pepper. “I never ought to have married her without being certain her first was dead. It ain’t right, Crippen; say what you like, it ain’t right!”
“If you put it that way,” said the captain hesitatingly.
“Have some more gin,” said the artful pilot.
The captain had some more, and, what with flattery and gin, combined with the pleadings of his friend, began to consider the affair more favourably. Pepper stuck to his guns, and used them so well that when the captain saw him off that evening he was pledged up to the hilt to come down to Sunset Bay and personate the late Captain Budd on the following Thursday.
The ex-pilot passed the intervening days in a sort of trance, from which he only emerged to take nourishment, or answer the scoldings of his wife. On the eventful Thursday, however, his mood changed, and he went about in such a state of suppressed excitement that he could scarcely keep still.
“Lor’ bless me!” snapped Mrs. Pepper, as he slowly perambulated the parlour that afternoon. “What ails the man? Can’t you keep still for five minutes?”
The ex-pilot stopped and eyed her solemnly, but, ere he could reply, his heart gave a great bound, for, from behind the geraniums which filled the window, he saw the face of Captain Crippen slowly rise and peer cautiously into the room. Before his wife could follow the direction of her husband’s eyes it had disappeared.
“Somebody looking in at the window,” said Pepper, with forced calmness, in reply to his wife’s eyebrows.
“Like their impudence!” said the unconscious woman, resuming her knitting, while her husband waited in vain for the captain to enter.
He waited some time, and then, half dead with excitement, sat down, and with shaking fingers lit his pipe. As he looked up the stalwart figure of the captain passed the window. During the next twenty minutes it passed seven times, and Pepper, coming to the not unnatural conclusion that his friend intended to pass the afternoon in the same unprofitable fashion, resolved to force his hand.
“Must be a tramp,” he said aloud.
“Who?” inquired his wife. “Man keeps looking in at the window,” said Pepper desperately. “Keeps looking in till he meets my eye, then he disappears. Looks like an old sea-captain, something.”
“Old sea-captain?” said his wife, putting down her work and turning round. There was a strange hesitating note in her voice. She looked at the window, and at the same instant the head of the captain again appeared above the geraniums, and, meeting her gaze, hastily vanished. Martha Pepper sat still for a moment, and then, rising in a slow, dazed fashion, crossed to the door and opened it. Mermaid Passage was empty!
“See anybody?” quavered Pepper.
His wife shook her head, but in a strangely quiet fashion, and, sitting down, took up her knitting again.
For some time the click of the needles and the tick of the clock were the only sounds audible, and the ex-pilot had just arrived at the conclusion that his friend had abandoned him to his fate, when there came a low tapping at the door.
“Come in!” cried Pepper, starting.
The door opened slowly, and the tall figure of Captain Crippen entered and stood there eyeing them nervously. A neat little speech he had prepared failed him at the supreme moment. He leaned against the wall, and in a clumsy, shamefaced fashion lowered his gaze, and stammered out the one word–“Martha!”
At that word Mrs. Pepper rose and stood with parted lips, eyeing him wildly.
“Jem!” she gasped, “Jem!”
“Martha!” croaked the captain again.
With a choking cry Mrs. Pepper ran towards him, and, to the huge gratification of her lawful spouse, flung her arms about his neck and kissed him violently.
“Jem,” she cried breathlessly, “is it really you? I can hardly believe it. Where have you been all this long time? Where have you been?”
“Lots of places,” said the captain, who was not prepared to answer a question like that offhand; “but wherever I’ve been”–he held up his hand theatrically–“the image of my dear lost wife has been always in front of me.”
“I knew you at once, Jem,” said Mrs. Pepper fondly, smoothing the hair back from his forehead. “Have I altered much?”
“Not a bit,” said Crippen, holding her at arm’s length and carefully regarding her. “You look just the same as the first time I set eyes on you.”
“Where have you been?” wailed Martha Pepper, putting her head on his shoulder.
“When the Dolphin went down from under me, and left me fighting with the waves for life and Martha, I was cast ashore on a desert island,” began Crippen fluently. “There I remained for nearly three years, when I was rescued by a barque bound for New South Wales. There I met a man from Poole who told me you were dead. Having no further interest in the land of my birth, I sailed in Australian waters for many years, and it was only lately that I heard how cruelly I had been deceived, and that my little flower was still blooming.”
The little flower’s head being well down on his shoulder again, the celebrated actor exchanged glances with the worshipping Pepper.
“If you’d only come before, Jem,” said Mrs. Pepper. “Who was he? What was his name?”
“Smith,” said the cautious captain.
“If you’d only come before, Jem,” said Mrs. Pepper, in a smothered voice, “it would have been better. Only three months ago I married that object over there.”
The captain attempted a melodramatic start with such success, that, having somewhat underestimated the weight of his fair bride, he nearly lost his balance.
“It can’t be helped, I suppose,” he said reproachfully, “but you might have waited a little longer, Martha.”
“Well, I’m your wife, anyhow,” said Martha, “and I’ll take care I never lose you again. You shall never go out of my sight again till you die. Never.”
“Nonsense, my pet,” said the captain, exchanging uneasy glances with the ex-pilot. “Nonsense.”
“It isn’t nonsense, Jem,” said the lady, as she drew him on to the sofa and sat with her arms round his neck. “It may be true, all you’ve told me, and it may not. For all I know, you may have been married to some other woman; but I’ve got you now, and I intend to keep you.”
“There, there,” said the captain, as soothingly as a strange sinking at the heart would allow him.
“As for that other little man, I only married him because he worried me so,” said Mrs. Pepper tearfully. “I never loved him, but he used to follow me about and propose. Was it twelve or thirteen times you proposed to me, Pepper?”
“I forget,” said the ex-pilot shortly.
“But I never loved him,” she continued. “I never loved you a bit, did I, Pepper?”
“Not a bit,” said Pepper warmly. “No man could ever have a harder or more unfeeling wife than you was. I’ll say that for you, willing.”
As he bore this testimony to his wife’s fidelity there was a knock at the door, and, upon his opening it, the rector’s daughter, a lady of uncertain age, entered, and stood regarding with amazement the frantic but ineffectual struggles of Captain Crippen to release himself from a position as uncomfortable as it was ridiculous.
“Mrs. Pepper!” said the lady, aghast. “Oh, Mrs. Pepper!”
“It’s all right, Miss Winthrop,” said the lady addressed, calmly, as she forced the captain’s flushed face on to her ample shoulder again; “it’s my first husband, Jem Budd.”
“Good gracious!” said Miss Winthrop, starting. “Enoch Arden in the flesh!”
“Who?” inquired Pepper, with a show of polite interest.
“Enoch Arden,” said Miss Winthrop. “One of our great poets wrote a noble poem about a sailor who came home and found that his wife had married again; but, in the POEM, the first husband went away without making himself known, and died of a broken heart.”
She looked at Captain Crippen as though he hadn’t quite come up to her expectations.
“And now,” said Pepper, speaking with great cheerfulness, “it’s me that’s got to have the broken heart. Well, well.”
“It’s a most interesting case,” cried Miss Winthrop; “and, if you wait till I fetch my camera, I’ll take your portrait together just as you are.”
“Do,” said Mrs. Pepper cordially.
“I won’t have my portrait took,” said the captain, with much acerbity.
“Not if I wish it, dear?” inquired Mrs. Pepper tenderly.
“Not if you keep a-wishing it all your life,” replied the captain sourly, making another attempt to get his head from her shoulder.
“Don’t you think they ought to have their portrait taken now?” asked Miss Winthrop, turning to the ex-pilot.
“I don’t see no ‘arm in it,” said Pepper thoughtlessly.
“You hear what Mr. Pepper says,” said the lady, turning to the captain again. “Surely if he doesn’t mind, you ought not to.”
“I’ll talk to him by-and-bye,” said the captain, very grimly.
“P’raps it would be better if we kept this affair to ourselves for the present,” said the ex-pilot, taking alarm at his friend’s manner.
“Well, I won’t intrude on you any longer,” said Miss Winthrop. “Oh! Look there! How rude of them!”
The others turned hastily in time to see several heads vanish from the window. Captain Crippen was the first to speak.
“Jem!” said Mrs. Pepper severely, before he had finished.
“Captain Budd!” said Miss Winthrop, flushing.
The incensed captain rose to his feet and paced up and down the room. He looked at the ex-pilot, and that small schemer shivered.
“Easy does it, cap’n,” he murmured, with a wink which he meant to be comforting.
“I’m going out a little way,” said the captain, after the rector’s daughter had gone. “Just to cool my head.”
Mrs. Pepper took her bonnet from its peg behind the door, and, surveying herself in the glass, tied it beneath her chin.
“Alone,” said Crippen nervously. “I want to do a little thinking.”
“Never again, Jem,” said Mrs. Pepper firmly. “My place is by your side. If you’re ashamed of people looking at you, I’m not. I’m proud of you. Come along. Come and show yourself, and tell them who you are. You shall never go out of my sight again as long as I live. Never.”
She began to whimper.
“What’s to be done?” inquired Crippen, turning desperately on the bewildered pilot.
“What’s it got to do with him?” demanded Mrs. Pepper sharply.
“He’s got to be considered a little, I s’pose,” said the captain, dissembling. “Besides, I think I’d better do like the man in the poetry did. Let me go away and die of a broken heart. Perhaps it’s best.”
Mrs. Pepper looked at him with kindling eyes.
“Let me go away and die of a broken heart,” repeated the captain, with real feeling. “I’d rather do it. I would indeed.”
Mrs. Pepper, bursting into angry tears, flung her arms round his neck again, and sobbed on his shoulder. The pilot, obeying the frenzied injunctions of his friend’s eye, drew down the blind.
“There’s quite a crowd outside,” he remarked.
“I don’t mind,” said his wife amiably. “They’ll soon know who he is.”
She stood holding the captain’s hand and stroking it, and whenever his feelings became too much for her put her head down on his waistcoat. At such times the captain glared fiercely at the ex-pilot, who, being of a weak nature, was unable, despite his anxiety, to give his risible faculties that control which the solemnity of the occasion demanded.
The afternoon wore slowly away. Miss Winthrop, who disliked scandal, had allowed something of the affair to leak out, and several visitors, including a local reporter, called, but were put off till the morrow, on the not unnatural plea that the long-separated couple desired a little privacy. The three sat silent, the ex-pilot, with wrinkled brows, trying hard to decipher the lip-language in which the captain addressed him whenever he had an opportunity, but could only dimly guess its purport, when the captain pressed his huge fist into the service as well.
Mrs. Pepper rose at length, and went into the back room to prepare tea. As she left the door open, however, and took the captain’s hat with her, he built no hopes on her absence, but turned furiously to the ex-pilot.
“What’s to be done?” he inquired in a fierce whisper. “This can’t go on.”
“It’ll have to,” whispered the other.
“Now, look here,” said Crippen menacingly, “I’m going into the kitchen to make a clean breast of it. I’m sorry for you, but I’ve done the best I can. Come and help me to explain.”
He turned to the kitchen, but the other, with the strength born of despair, seized him by the sleeve and held him back.
“She’ll kill me,” he whispered breathlessly.
“I can’t help it,” said Crippen, shaking him off. “Serve you right.”
“And she’ll tell the folks outside, and they’ll kill you,” continued Pepper.
The captain sat down again, and confronted him with a face as pale as his own.
“The last train leaves at eight,” whispered the pilot hurriedly. “It’s desperate, but it’s the only thing you can do. Take her for a stroll up by the fields near the railway station. You can see the train coming in for a mile off nearly. Time yourself carefully, and make a bolt for it. She can’t run.”
The entrance of their victim with the tea-tray stopped the conversation; but the captain nodded acceptance behind her back, and then, with a forced gaiety, sat down to tea.
For the first time since his successful appearance he became loquacious, and spoke so freely of incidents in the life of the man he was impersonating that the ex-pilot sat in a perfect fever lest he should blunder. The meal finished, he proposed a stroll, and, as the unsuspecting Mrs. Pepper tied on her bonnet, slapped his leg, and winked confidently at his fellow-conspirator.
“I’m not much of a walker,” said the innocent Mrs. Pepper, “so you must go slowly.”
The captain nodded, and at Pepper’s suggestion left by the back way, to avoid the gaze of the curious.
For some time after their departure Pepper sat smoking, with his anxious face turned to the clock, until at length, unable to endure the strain any longer, and not without a sportsmanlike idea of being in at the death, he made his way to the station, and placed himself behind a convenient coal-truck.
He waited impatiently, with his eyes fixed on the road up which he expected the captain to come. He looked at his watch. Five minutes to eight, and still no captain. The platform began to fill, a porter seized the big bell and rang it lustily; in the distance a patch of white smoke showed. Just as the watcher had given up all hope, the figure of the captain came in sight. He was swaying from side to side, holding his hat in his hand, but doggedly racing the train to the station.
“He’ll never do it!” groaned the pilot. Then he held his breath, for three or four hundred yards behind the captain Mrs. Pepper pounded in pursuit.
The train rolled into the station; passengers stepped in and out; doors slammed, and the guard had already placed the whistle in his mouth, when Captain Crippen, breathing stentorously, came stumbling blindly on to the platform, and was hustled into a third class carriage.
“Close shave that, sir,” said the station-master as he closed the door.
The captain sank back in his seat, fighting for breath, and turning his head, gave a last triumphant look up the road.
“All right, sir,” said the station-master kindly, as he followed the direction of the other’s eyes and caught sight of Mrs. Pepper. “We’ll wait for your lady.”
* * * * *
Jackson Pepper came from behind the coal-truck and watched the train out of sight, wondering in a dull, vague fashion what the conversation was like. He stood so long that a tender hearted porter, who had heard the news, made bold to come up and put a friendly hand on his shoulder.
“You’ll never see her again, Mr. Pepper,” he said sympathetically.
The ex-pilot turned and regarded him fixedly, and the last bit of spirit he was ever known to show flashed up in his face as he spoke.
“You’re a blamed idiot!” he said rudely.