with The Green Bed
Jack never joined that East Indiaman. The Vesta took him back up the North Sea and that’s where he stayed for a while. He had no mind to return to Plymouth just yet, and he took the work that came his way, which was up and down the East Coast, or over to the Baltic. Timber was the big thing there: it still is, of course. But there were grain cargoes, and wool, and short runs down to the Thames with dairy stuffs and lasts of bloaters out of Norfolk. So it happened that it was at Yarmouth that Jack had what he always looked back on as his little escapade.
It was his first time into Yarmouth: the ship was The Great Peter. She was due to pick up a grain cargo, it being a month or so after the harvest was done. But the skipper was in no hurry to take her in, for all that she was light. He anchored in the roads, as there was no sight of the old port for the grey fog that clung about the vessel. Dawn was just a brightening, with no focus to it, one or those mornings when all around is a white shroud of unformed sea and sky. You might think you had just floated away from the world, saving the tug of tide at the anchor cable. Grey beads of damp cling to the yards and lie along the rails, and there’s a silence that demands whispers, like an empty church. A fitful bell tolled there too, when a swell lifted the unseen buoy on the Scroby bank.
The sun, coming up to port, burnt this all away, and suddenly above the grey down of mist to starboard appeared the spire of St Nicholas church, which is the old seamark on this level coast, and then the roofs of the town spread along the shore, and then the boats and craft drawn up along the sands, and then the prospect of fresh bread and a drop of beer. Three hours later, when the tide had gone about, Jack and his mates were readily bending their backs to warp the ship into her berth on the quay of the Yare. They used to say that a sailor could walk from the river’s mouth all the way up to Breydon Water without stepping on dry land, by jumping from deck to deck along the press of craft moored at the quayside. So it was that morning: a thicket of masts and spars the length of the quay, like a boundary planting, and the cobbles crammed with carts and stores and cargo between the confusion of lines and mooring ropes. Among the hauliers and the sailors and the tallymen, Jack still looked unthinking for that flash of a white dress that might pause his heart, but truly now, that was becoming a different place and another time.
It happened that their expected grain cargo had not arrived. While the officers made enquiry at the shipping offices, Jack and his shipmates idled at the rails, speculating as to the chances of delay and an extended run ashore. There was a smell of tobacco on the morning air. Tom Arscott said:
-Rum old place, Yarmouth. Looks dainty, this quay, with them big houses across the way, says money, but you wonder where all the people come from. And then you get round the back, and there they all are, like fleas in a blanket. They old Yarmouth bloaters squeezed in so many houses between here and the sea shore there’s scarcely room to turn about.
-Swing a cat? suggested someone.
-You wouldn’t want to try if’n they’d let you. There’s the sleekest fattest cats you ever did see. It’s the fish guts, for sure. There’s such a deal of herring they cats barely have to stretch out a paw. Come to that, they’re like the townspeople, they can live off what the sea throws their way, and so there’s always room for one more. And if you need another roof, there’s always a boat on the beach. Some of they Yarmouth folk lives like that years, like they been swept up out of the sea, and I say that as a Brixham buye myself.
It turned out that the intended cargo would not be carried to the quay till the morrow. The captain fumed, but there was ought he could do, and the ship’s crew prepared themselves for a spell on shore.
Now this Tom Arscott had been around the coasting trade a good while. He was ten years older than Jack. There weren’t many ports on the English and Scotch coast that he hadn’t been, and he had some stories of the Mediterranean too. His stories mostly seemed to turn on some other sailor’s misfortune, stabbed in Sicily or dosed by a whore in Trieste. And of men drowned off Dogger as well, come to that. Tom seemed a nautical Mr Worldly Wiseman, no doubt. He was new to Jack, who had only just joined the ship, but Tom had taken a shine to him. He leaned over confidingly to Jack and said:
-Stick with me, buye, when we get abroad, and I’ll introduce ‘ee to the sweetest little dumpling you ever seen.
-So you know your way about the town then?
-Enough to thread my needle. Maybe yours too, if’n she’s got a sister. She’s a corker, and what’s more, she’s sweet on me. I was in here on this vessel six month back, but as soon as me and the maid got properly introduced and it was promising well, we was back at sea. I’ve had a dick like a belay pin every time I thought of her. Us have just had a stroke of luck today.
The crew weren’t allowed to idle the morning away. Jack was kept busy with the Stockholm. But in the end even the First Mate could find them nothing useful to do, and their time was their own. They set off with a warning: loading would begin at eight tomorrow, and docked pay for any man that rolled up late or unfitted for labour. Now Yarmouth is not short of ale-houses, and Jack and Tom and their watchmates didn’t have far to roll before they found somewhere to tickle a thirst. They were two jars to the good and our Jack was starting to think of a cutlet when Tom nudged his elbow. Time to meet my Molly, he said. We can bait there directly. They stepped out into the Rows.
The people of Yarmouth must have loved their old town walls, because when they needed a new house they just pushed another inside them, like with a shoehorn. There must have been some sort of plan, because they left these lanes, what they call Rows, between the houses. There are dozens of them, all running the same way, from the sea to the river, but mostly so narrow you can stand in the middle and touch the houses on both sides, though you might have to stand in the drains to do it. And Yarmouth being a sandy place, the old house walls have staggered about. Some of them are propped up from the house across the way with bits of timber (which at least argues good neighbourliness) otherwise they’d be down in the street and their fellows with them. One consequence is that by night these Rows can be as black as a bit of old caulking, and even at noontide they don’t see much sunlight. So what with the quantity of houses, the closeness of the ways and the gloom, it’s not easy for a stranger to find his way about. When the two men came out into the Market Square for a second time, Jack realised that Tom’s recall was wanting. They stood beside the Market cross, with all the bustle of trade around them. Jack said:
-Are you sure it was The White Lion?
-White Swan, Horse, Dog, Donkey, some white creature.
They took directions and after several false trails found The White Hart. It was near the old South Gate, and down the narrowest Row Jack had yet seen. It was in the end little more than a furlong from their vessel. This is the one, said Tom.
-My stomach thinks my throat’s been cut, said Jack. They went inside.
They stood in a cramped tap-room built like the tween decks of a Navy sloop. The ceiling beams were so low a tall chap like Jack had to stoop just to see the ale. There was a small window like a gunport. God’s light had to struggle down the Row outside to creep in. The landlord in his apron was sat on a stool beside a trestle table, polishing pewter ware with his huge hands. He stood up to greet them, but being a big man himself, not too far. Jack thought the man’s back was bent beyond redemption. The landlord said: Now here’s some jolly seafarers. What’s your pleasure, Sirs?
-Us’ll come to that in a trice, Mr Smethurst, said Tom. This moment us have had a long morning and need victualing.
-I thought as I knew your face, said Mr Smethurst, peering at Tom. You was here a week or two back, offn a boat out of Malmo. We had good cheer that night.
-Not me, said Tom. But I was here in the Spring. I met your daughter Molly.
-Of course you did, said the man, though Jack guessed the occasion was not to his mind. The reply was landlord’s courtesy. Mr Smethurst said: She’ll be pleased to see you no doubt, Mr…?
-Tom Arscott. This here’s my new ship mate, Jack Parker.
- Pleasure I’m sure. Young Molly’s on her errands this minute, but I’ll have her look in soonest. She’s a fine girl, you’ll acknowledge.
-Handsome, said Tom.
-You know, I fell down the hatch of a yawl in ‘eighty-one. I never been the same since - the spine can’t be trusted – well, between Molly and her nan, they keep the old inn going when I’m laid up. It’s a marvel, really.
- I believe it, said Tom.
- A good woman is a blessing, said the landlord. Now, do you both sit and I’ll find you some grub. He shuffled out.
They dined off kidney pudding and carrots and half a loaf. They had some beer while waiting, and some more to help it down. They were served by Mrs Smethurst, a dumpy woman in a gown of flowery print like she was going to a tuppenny rout. She was sixty if a day. She sat down heavily to watch them eat. She had a cold eye in a broad face. Jack calculated this was the landlord’s mother.
-Good trip, boys? she asked. There’s good wages to be earned on this coast now, I’m told. Always good and busy when the Frenchies leave us alone.
-They’m troubles of their own now, missus, seems like, said Tom. So us merchant sailors are let be to earn a living. And our own Navy don’t trouble us much.
-There’s a frigate just anchored in the roads this morning, I heard, Mr Smethurst advised. Probably just victualing, but last time the press cutter was here, my cousin’s lad got took. She’s been spitting since, with a hand short on her smack, and don’t know when she’ll see him again. Hardly seems fair, do it? When it’s peaceful.
-Ifn they paid better, they’d get all the men they wanted, said Mrs Smethurst. But you been asking after Molly?
- I told my shipmate here all about her.
-She has her admirers, don’t she Henry?
The landlord looked pleased. That pudding you’ve eaten was one of hers, he said. Some young chap’s going to pick a fine flower one day.
Tom looked discomposed, which set Jack wondering. The old lady said:
- And you’re Tom, if I hear right? Good. So is it a grain ship you’re off, boys? Better harvest this year, but Norfolk people are still waiting on the herring again, to get ‘em from Michaelmas to Easter. It’s the right bread of the town.
-Brings in the trade? said Tom.
-We all of us have to do what we can to get by, said the old lady. You knows Mr Smethurst here, he once was the hero of the Fancy. Show the gentleman your belt, Henry.
-Oh come now, mother, said her son, though it seemed but a performance of modesty, and he soon drew back his coat. Around his generous waist and holding up his breeches was a band of coloured cloth, all laced through with gold thread, and tied with a girt gilt buckle. Gift of Lord Somers, he said.
-And for why? Mrs Smethurst prompted.
-For the beating of Jemmy Harding in seventy-nine, her son explained. I was called the Breydon Battler. All the Fancy knew me on the East Coast. Twenty fights and nary lost a-one, and His Lordship, he won a hundred pound clear betting against Harding. I still sees old Harding – he brings sporting gentlemen in to meet me once or twice a year, and we maybe wrestle an arm if they’re the wagering sort, which they usually are.
-Good for custom then, the belt, remarked Tom.
-It’s a long time ago now, said Mr Smethurst. People forget. And they sees me on a bad day when I can’t hardly lift a firkin, and they’d never guess. But we makes out, don’t we Mother? Oh, here’s our Molly. I still keeps my little family, Sirs.
This maid, his daughter, was about eighteen, and Jack could see right off that she took after her Nan. She was broad in the face, and in the behind too. Above a neat waist, there were ample bosoms to go along. There was a deal to take hold of, as Tom said later. Hallo, maid! was what he said now, in his Devon fashion, and getting up to greet her. Of course, the light was none too good in that little tap-room. She peered at him uncertainly.
-It’s your Tom, said her grandmother. He’s come back from… from off his boat, to see you special. Jack thought that if she had been closer, Mrs Smethurst might have given Molly a discreet kick. Tom didn’t notice; he only had eyes for the girl.
-Why, yes, Tom, my dear, where have you been? As she said this, her face brightened. It was like the sun coming out in that little room. Molly leaned over and gave Tom a girt buss, full on the lips. Jack thought, she’s a little trollop, but he could hardly take his eyes off her figure himself.
-Well now, said Tom, I been here and there, but I ain’t stopped thinking of you, me lover. I could buy us a quart of wine, and tell you all about it.
-She’s rarely left off talking about you since the spring, said the grandmother. Why hasn’t he wrote? she’d say to me.
-I’m not a great hand with an inkhorn, said Tom.
-There, I told Molly. I ‘spect he’s got better things to do, I said. Mrs Smethurst bent over and whispered in Molly’s ear. I’m just saying this inn won’t run itself Mr Arscott, so my Henry and me will have to be getting along. We’re like to be busy in a shake. She said to Molly: Do you get the best claret from the store now. These gentlemen have come a long way to see you.
Jack and Tom were briefly alone. I could leave you to it, said Jack. He thought of Molly, her blonde curls around dimples, and wished there was indeed a sister. But Tom said: You can bide here a bit, while Molly and me come to agreement. Then us can see what the house can fix up for ‘ee. But you have to admit, her’s the proper job.
The two men were sitting on a bench against the window when the maid came back. She squeezed in between them with a bottle in her hand. Oh, she said, I’ve only brung two glasses. She went back for a third. Tom winked at Jack. When she settled back on the bench, her ample hips nearly pushed Jack from the end. He balanced there next to her as best he could, feeling a warmth in his breeches that took him by surprise. Tom took the bottle from her. Shall I pull your cork for you? he asked.
-Now, no more of that, Tom, said Molly. You’ll embarrass your poor friend.
-Pleased to meet you, she said. She looked him in the eye a moment. He recognised some knowledge between them. That was almost a surprise too. Christ, he thought. But her hand was on Tom’s knee. Where have you been then? Molly asked Tom.
-Oh, round the world and back again, said Tom. He gave a long account of voyages and cargoes and maritime ups and downs. Jack thought Molly showed great interest, considering. Jack tipped in a bit too. The bottle emptied between the three, though Tom was having the most. And now, said Tom, I aim to get meself back to Devon for a spell. I got a little bit set by, you knows, and my old mother’s on her own in her cottage. It’s a goodly size cottage up above the Brixham quay, what we calls down there Fishtown. It’s a grand place – you’d like it – like Yarmouth really.
-With hills, said Jack. Molly glanced at him, met his eye. After a second, she turned back to Tom.
-So what I’m coming to, continued Tom, after all this, is how I might like to send for ‘ee when I’m settled back in, maid, and how you might like to join me.
-Oh, said the maid. There was a silence. Molly’s hand remained on Tom’s knee. He played with it in his big nautical paw. Jack stared round the room, hardly knowing where to look. He finished his glass. At length Molly said:
-Is that a proposal?
-Why I got a witness, said Tom.
-You daft bugger! said Molly. You was only in here for three days, and that six month ago. She slipped her arm around his waist and gave him a squeeze. You are a dear man, but why should I marry you, all the way down the country, when I get all I want without being wed?
-What’s that mean? asked Tom
-What do you think? Molly answered.
Two men came into the room. Molly kissed Tom, and jumped up to serve them. Tom looked over at Jack. He shrugged. Life’s a game, ain’t it, buye? he said.
-You might have done worse, said Jack. He had reason for sympathy, after all. Do you want to look out the rest of our mates?
-Hold hard, I’m not done yet, said Tom. More men entered and were attended. They sat themselves to cards. When she was finished serving, Molly came over. Tom stood up and putting his arm round her fondled her generous behind. There was some canoodling between them, while Jack made the point of staring out the window. What little light there was in the Row was fading fast. It would be candles soon. When he looked back, Tom was sitting on their bench with Molly on his knee. Where then? he was saying. I’ll not find ‘ee in the dark. Jack heard Molly say:
-Once the old place is shut up, do you find the side and into our yard where the well is.
-You could leave a light in your winder, so’s I’ll know where you are. Or I could call out.
-You won’t. You’ll have Father running. But ifn you feel round above the door, you’ll find a piece o’string. Give it a little pull and I’ll creep down the backstairs and let you in. But not a word till we get to my chamber.
Well, thought Jack, there’s a bit of sport. Lucky old Arscott. He said as much to his mate when they got outside.
-Luck be damned, said Tom. She’s a sweet little tart, and it’s cost me a half a guinea, and the same to the old lady in the morning when we’re done.
-Nanny Smethurst pimps her Molly?
-Seems like. What next, eh? They walked together to the end of the Row. Said Tom: And don’t you be letting on about my proposal when we’re back on board. I didn’t know her was so free and easy.
They had come out on the strand, facing the sea. Long shadows stretched across the beach as the sun disappeared behind them. The sky before them was already dark, though a few gulls still bobbed on the water. Terns here too, Jack noticed. The light air off the land still had some summer warmth, despite it smelled of fish.
They caught up with their shipmates in another alehouse. It was a bigger place than the White Hart, and pretty spilling out the scuppers with fishermen and sailors. Their own crew looked to be well taken with grog, and two had already paired up with a couple of Yarmouth women, who were hanging on their necks. Jack thought none of the girls here as pretty as Molly, but he had reached a stage where he wasn’t going to be too particular himself. For all his sea going, remember, he was still a youngster; he had yet to dip his wick. The encounter in the White Hart made this seem pressing all the more, while Tom had an air of smug expectancy. After all, Tom was a man with a pledge, thought Jack.
Then the evening took its turn. Jack was at the back door. To tell the truth, he was just returning from the privy. He had hardly put a foot back inside – the doorlatch was still in his hand – when the Navy came in the front. Good Jesus, he thought , as the room erupted, with a flash of blue and white and steel at its centre, several tars and some petty officer laying about them while men dived for the windows and women screamed. There was a crash of crocks as a table went over, and poor Tom Arscott was one of several laid hold. No point in staying: Jack doubled the door and was out in the yard, with others flying after. But His Majesty’s not so stupid: there were two more tars waiting in the dark.
-I’ve signed Articles, said Jack.
-My arse, said one of the men, but before the matelot could lay on hands, his legs were taken from under him by another rush of drinkers. Jack bolted past the privy, and didn’t stop till he reached the end of the Row. He took a breather. The sea was sparkling there under a rising moon.
At first, Jack was outraged, for himself and for his mates. A good night ashore ruined, and working sailors too, he reflected, sitting on the shingle behind an upturned boat. At the same time, while his heart was still pumping and his lungs drew in the night air, he congratulated himself on a narrow escape. You had to laugh. A couple of years, more, on salt beef and gunpowder weren’t a joke, and then maybe going home with no prize money and a leg shot away. Ifn you were lucky. And what would your Dol or Betty do then? Suddenly his head was full of women. There was Susan in Plymouth, but here of course there was Molly, already bargained and partly paid, and like as not old Tom might be well occupied for a bit. Like as not, she might be lonely. It was time he took his chance. There was a stirring in his breeches which could not be denied.
It took Jack a while to discover the White Hart again. The search put him in mind of those dreams where the end is always in sight, but remains beyond reach, for several times he turned in to one Row or another, certain he had found it, to find in fact he was deceived. Finally he might have gone by in the dark, were it not that the last customers were leaving while the door was made fast. He set himself to wait in a doorway beyond, until the last lights were doused, and the house silent. He watched the shape of a cat prowling the drains.
When he judged the moment, he located a covered alley, barely the width of a handcart, but which as he hoped, led to the yard behind the alehouse. Here he was surrounded by the backs of houses, but the moon was now high enough to cast some light, and there was the common well, in the centre of the tiny space, amongst washing lines, and brewing tubs, and a chicken coop. He paused. The back door awaited but he found himself a-tremble, like someone at the wall of the Eternal City. This was an occasion. Then reaching into the dark above the lintel, a length of twine came to his hand. The casement above swung open.
A head of curls leaned out, gold turned silver in the moonlight. Molly raised a finger to her lips, the same finger that bore the piece of string. The casement closed again. After a minute the door was opened. Jack stepped into the dark, and followed a glimmer of white silently up the stairs, a glimmer of white because, Jack realized, the string on her finger was all the maid wore. They came into the moonlit chamber and she shut the door carefully behind them. She turned to face him. Her lovely eyes widened with surprise. Oh, she said. She mouthed: Where’s Tom?
Her belly was like a heap of wheat set about with lilies, her two breasts like two young roes that were burns. So Solomon sang, but the sight was quite enough for Jack. He pressed her back against the door, whispering: Tom’s sent me to keep his bargain. She laughed and she didn’t seem loth. Jack remembered the earlier glances. They confirmed his strength. Her hand was at his breeches. She said: then you needs to honour the deal. He felt for the first time a woman’s fingers about his cock, as she lead him to the bed, and helped him find his clumsy way. They were not engaged long the first time, but on the second she bit into his chest to keep from crying out. When they were done, she laid back in his stout arms and whispered: you’re a swift learner. He had no wit left to answer, just squeezed her close.
And so they passed the night. Jack lay there, between pride and knowledge and sleep, with the maid in his arms till the morning.
Then it was near daylight. Come on down you Norfolk bitch. You got my fucking money. That was Tom Arscott in the yard. Christ! said Jack, I thought he must be in the Hole.
Molly jumped out of the bed to peer naked round the rag of curtain. He’ll have my father up, she gasped. Though even then, as Jack looked over the blanket at her splendid arse, he had to think, I‘ve been there. But sure enough, there came a crash of feet banging awkwardly along the landing and down the stairs and the door below them was flung open. There was a row of course, Tom cursing and swearing and drunk, the landlord berating, and then old Nanny Smethurst herself putting in her pen’orth, likely worried lest she lose her golden goose. Angry neighbours joined in from surrounding windows. Jack pulled on his shirt, and peeped out the chamber door. There was no one on the stairs. But Molly said: You can’t go down, he’ll lather me.
-He must know, said Jack.
-What? asked Molly. That his daughter is a very pretty whore, Jack thought but couldn’t bring himself to say. He tugged on his breeches. He glanced out the window. Your old man’s a-coming back in, he said.
-Oh God, Oh God! she yelped, heaving on her shift. Her breasts struggled to get inside it.
-The window! Jack said. Pull it after.
-My nan’s money! she said.
Damnation to that, he thought, which was a tad ungrateful. He swung out onto the ledge. It was a longish way down to the ground, but on the left were the chickens. He landed on the roof of the coop with both feet and went straight through it. He was sprawled in the yard, tangled with wood and netting.
-You’m a proper bastard, Parker, said Tom, who was sitting on the well cover. And I only thought good of ‘ee till now. He had a black eye and blood was leaking from his nose. He was still worse for drink. He sat idle while Jack extracted himself. There were angry voices from the room above, not least the old woman’s screeching. Jack’s hand fell on a bit of stunned poultry. It was maybe dead. He kicked off the last of the woodwork, and took the bird by its legs. Not the place to set and maunder, Jack said to Tom, and with his free hand pulled him to his feet, and out into the Row beyond. He pushed the hen inside his shirt and they turned towards their ship. When they reached the quayside, Jack asked:
-How did you get out of the press?
-It took a bit. They had to send to the skipper, to check we were signed. Me and that Taffy.
-He can talk.
-Can’t he. Too late for my black eye though, and the skipper will be wroth. It was past midnight. Then me and Taffy, us decided to mark our release, and that’s when the money ran short.
-You’ve still blood on your nose. Take my snotty. Jack passed over a shred of handkerchief.
-That weren’t the Navy, though, that was Molly’s dad. Jack tried not to grin. Tom went on: And I be half a guinea adrift and not sniff of fanny for it. I believe as ‘ee might owe me.
Jack steered the subject about as they mounted the ship’s side. Sailors’ misfortunes, he said. You‘ve gained a good story.
-There could be fifteen sailors pulling on her string come tomorrow, said Tom. Jack didn’t like to think about that. But he sold the bird, straight from his shirt to the ship’s cook, for a shilling. The cook thought he had a bargain there. Jack thought he had had one too.
Now despite all, it has to be said Cousin Jack was always a lad of feeling. And while women may not credit it, a man will always think fondly of his first true engagement with their sex. Men like their old lovers to think well of them too. So although he found female comfort all around the North Sea thereafter, and much of it with his charms quite easy, he often thought about the White Hart and buxom Molly. In consequence, when he was blown into Yarmouth the next twelve month or so after, he determined on looking her out.
That year had been quite kind to Jack. He was never out of work, and though much of his money went ashore on beer and women, he had a little still in hand, and the more because he was to be paid off in Yarmouth. He had joined another collier in the Tyne, for now he was older and wiser they kept him out of the coal dust, and these ships made then a fair berth, or good as any. But their owners often prefered to lay them up for the winter when the trade grew less, and let their captains take their ease with their wives in Southwold or some such cosy nook. Thuswise Jack was on the quayside in Yarmouth once again, with a few days at least to look round for another vessel. With his father’s old sea-chest on his shoulder, he set off to find a berth, and the White Hart seemed a place to start. Being the jovial chap as he was, it never occurred that he might be unwelcome, or if it did, the thought of lovely Molly soon overcame misgivings. As did the bit of gold in his purse, which always lends confidence.
Old Mrs Smethurst was in the tap-room when he walked in. She looked up from serving two Yarmouth fisherman, but it was clear she didn’t recognise Jack. After all, a year had gone, and of course the light still had to struggle through that little window. Jack quickly put his sea-chest on the floor lest it catch the rafters close above. He sat down and called for a glass of beer. When it was brought, he put tuppence on the table from out his tarry trowsers. It has to be said he looked a sorry sight in his seafaring clothes, which had had no attention for many a month. Mrs Smethurst palmed the coins with nary a word and was turning away, when Jack asked:
-So how’s your handsome Molly, missus?
-Oh, she’s blooming Sir, thank you for asking. Mrs Smethurst turned back and eyed him with care. He said:
-My thoughts have often run on her since last I was here.
-And I’m sure she’s often talked of you, said the landlady, though still she looked blank. Jack was a man of the world now: he recognised a madam’s calling. When was you here then, young man? she enquired. You must remind me.
-This time twelve months, just short of the Michaelmas Fair. There was a deal of herring.
The light of recollection crossed the landlady’s face, and her eyes narrowed in suspicion. You was with that Devon man, said Mrs Smethhurst. He left me forty shilling to the bad. More. My son give him a bloody nose and he pinched one of our chickens in spite. Smashed our coop while he was about it.
Jack tried to look her in the eye as she spoke. It only then occurred to Jack to wonder what tale Molly had spun her family. But he thought, here’s a lark. And say what you may, he could be a fund of invention.
-Oh poor Tom Arscott, Jack said. Only last month, drowned.
-We were off Scarborough in that terrible gale. Jack thought to himself: there are lots of gales, that’s certain enough. He went on: the old man had to put her on the beach, to be sure of getting our passengers off. You didn’t hear about this down here? The gig overturned as Tom and me was getting her into the waves, and we never saw poor Arscott after that. And then when the passengers were ashore, the ship broke up, and we lost the cargo. I felt as God must have spared me over for something special that night. But I had nothing left, saving what I stood up in, and that all tar and salt, like you see.
Mrs Smethurst glanced at the old sea-chest. Jack said: Kind people in Scarborough helped me on my way, and I have worked down to here, because I have nowhere else. And I need a bed for a bit till I get another berth.
The landlady looked at him narrowly. So you are all cleaned out? she said.
-Like a holystoned plank. I’m that bare.
It was just then that young Molly came in. She gave Jack a look without recognition and set about collecting up empty pots. Still the same figure and golden curls, but the dimples were wan, and there was a droop about her. And so do bright flowers go over, thought Jack. He felt chastened. Her grandmother said nothing.
-Gooday Molly, said Jack.
She looked at him uncertainly. Gooday Sir, she replied. How many have embraced her since last we met? Jack wondered. A sudden pity for the maid took him. He resolved on ending his little sham, but then Mrs Smethurst piped in:
-This here’s the sailor that was with that Arscott last year from Devonshire.
- Oh, is it you then Jack? Molly said. She brightened. Jack felt some pride in her recalling his name, but then the grandmother continued: That’s the one as still owes us, and now it seems he’s drownded himself.
-No! Molly looked genuinely shocked. Jack felt a bit ashamed, to give him credit.
-Terrible, terrible, the life at sea, said Mrs Smethurst and then turning to Molly: and it’s left the young man with nary a penny. It is a pity that our beds are all engaged, or we might try to help you out. But it’s the Fair coming, the town’s so busy, we‘ve not an inch to give, It’s all work, work, work, and not a minute for ourselves. It’s been a thin year for trade young sir, and we all have to glean what we can, with nothing to spare. Ain’t that so, Molly?
The maid shrugged, and looked sheepish. Jack felt his heart harden. He said:
-Seems like I must look for lodging elsewhere. I’m not seeking charity. He stood up. But I’ll not leave poor Tom Arscott’s name black. Was it forty shilling he owed you?
Jack pulled out his purse from out his jacket, and dropped it on the table, so it fell open. Two guineas and a sovereign rolled out: there was clearly much more remaining. When the last coin stopped spinning, there was a silence. At length Molly said: You’ve been jesting with us, Jack.
-So it seems, he said.
-And poor Mr Arscott’s not drowned?
Jack couldn’t restrain a grin at their discomfort. Tom was still drinking when we bid goodbye in the Lamb at Ramsgate, he said, though truth to tell he hadn’t seen Tom Arscott since they were paid off The Great Peter. Jack never could resist embroidery.
-I pray you’ve not brought ill luck upon him by that story, Sir, said Mrs Smethurst.
Jack felt Molly’s arm around his waist. That was a very mean tale, she said, but she kissed him on the cheek. He recalled his first sight of the maid. The jade. But his hand went down behind to squeeze her backside. Molly said to her grandmother: Surely the green bed is still empty? Jack could lie there. Her look implied to Jack that he might not sleep there alone.
Said the old lady, all simper now: We could soon make the green bed up, sir, if that is your fancy. If you is in earnest, then I own we may have had our jest too. It can be a poor night on old rushes, but it would serve your turn. Most reasonable.
-Damn your rushes! said Jack. Suddenly he was sick of them. He swept up his purse and his money too, all of it. Before I sleep in your bed again I’d sleep all out of doors.
-How mean you, Again? queried Mrs Smethurst, much surprised. Molly swiftly interrupted this tricky turn.
-Father will be back any minute. Now don’t you take on, Jack, but bide and have a drink with us.
But Jack had already picked up his sea-chest. I won’t be wheedled, he said. I earn my money in the cold and wet and rain, and I’ll spend it where I please. You can dun Tom Arscott for his forty shillings. The chest banged on the rafters as he hauled it above his head, and jarred the top of the door as he stepped out into the Row. The fishermen in the corner smirked at each other. There was no dignity for anyone.
As he came near the quayside, Jack thought he recognised Mr Smethurst’s big frame and bent back. He was stepping across the drain, going home before dark. Jack wondered what Molly had told him, or her grandmother come to that. Maybe he’s learned about women, thought Jack. And when he had settled in new lodgings, and was sat with his victuals before him and some ale inside, Jack laughed to himself and thought: there’s more pretty maids than one.