Read CHAPTER IX - The Booze Artist of My Brave and Gallant Gentleman, free online book, by Robert Watson, on ReadCentral.com.

I stood watching until the tiny launch rounded the point; then, as the light was still fairly good, it being the end of the month of May, and as I had no inclination for sleep as yet, I got into the smallest of the rowing boats that were tied up alongside the wharf, loosed it and pulled leisurely up the bay, with the intention of making myself a little better acquainted with the only living soul with whom I was within hail, Jake Meaghan.

As I ran the boat into his cove, I could hear his dog bark warningly.

The door of his barn, for it was nothing else, was closed, and it was some time before I heard Meaghan’s deep voice in answer to my knock, inviting me to come in and bidding his dog to lie down.

Meaghan was sitting, presumably reading a newspaper, which was the only kind of “literature” I ever saw him read. His attitude appeared to me to be assumed and I had a notion that, when the dog first barked at my approach, he had been busy with the contents of a brass-bound, wooden chest which now lay half under his bunk, in a recess in the far corner.

“Hello! Thought you might come over. Sit down,” he greeted. “Saw the boss pull out half an hour ago. I’m just sittin’ down for my turn at the newspaper. They leave me a bundle off the steamer once in a while. This one’s from the old country; the Liverpool Monitor. It’s two months old, but what’s the dif, the news is just as good as if it was yesterday’s or to-morrow’s.”

I looked round Jake’s shanty. Considering it was a single-roomed place and used for cooking, washing, sleeping and everything else, it was wonderfully tidy, although, to say truth, there was little in it after all to occasion untidiness: a stove, a pot, a frying-pan, an enamelled tin teapot, some crockery, a table, an oil lamp, three chairs, the brass-bound trunk, two wheat-flake boxes and Jake’s bed, with one other addition, a fifteen-gallon keg with a stopcock in it and set on a wooden stand close to his bunk.

An odour of shell-fish pervaded the atmosphere, coming from some kind of soup made from clams and milk, on which Jake had evidently been dining. The residue of it still sat in a pot on the stove. This, I discovered, was Jake’s favourite dish.

He rose, took two breakfast cups from a shelf and went over to the keg in the corner. He filled up both of them to the brim.

“Have a drink, George?” he invited, offering me one of the cups.

“What is it?” I asked, thinking it might be a cider of some kind.

“What d’ye suppose, man? ginger beer? It’s good rye whiskey.”

From the odour, I had ascertained this for myself before he spoke.

“No, thanks, Jake, I don’t drink.”

“Holy mackinaw!” he exclaimed, almost dropping the cups in his astonishment. “If you don’t drink, how in the Sam Hill are you going to make it stick up here? Why, man, you’ll go batty in the winter time, for it’s lonely as hell.”

“From all accounts, Jake, hell is not a very lonely place,” I laughed.

“Aw! you know what I mean,” he put in.

“I’ll have plenty of work to do in the store; enough to keep me from feeling lonely.”

“Not you. Once it’s goin’, it’ll be easy’s rollin’ off’n a log. What’ll you do o’ nights, ’specially winter nights, if you don’t drink?”

He sat down and began to empty his cup of liquor by the gulp.

His dog, which had been lying sullenly on the floor near the stove, got up and ambled leisurely to Jake’s feet. It looked up at him as he drank, then it put its two front paws on Jake’s knees, as if to attract his attention.

Meaghan stopped his imbibing and stroked the dog’s head.

“Well, well Mike; and did I forget you?”

He poured a little liquor in a saucer and set it down on the floor before the dog, who lapped it up with all the relish of a seasoned toper. Then it put its paws back on Jake’s knees, as if asking for more.

“No! Mike. Nothin’ doin’. You’ve had your whack. Too much ain’t good for your complexion, old man.”

In a sort of dreamy, contemplative mood the dog sat down on its haunches between us.

“What’ll you do o’ nights if you don’t drink? You ain’t told me that, George,” reiterated Jake, sucking some of the liquor from his drooping moustaches.

“Oh!” I replied, “I’ll read, and sometimes I’ll sit out and watch the stars and listen to the sea and the wind.”

“And what after that?” he queried.

“I can always think, when I have nothing else to do.”

“And what after that?” he asked again.

“Nothing, Jake, nothing. That’s all.”

“No it ain’t. No it ain’t, I tell you; after that, it’s the bughouse for yours. It’s the thinking, it’s the thinking that does it every time. It’s the last stage, George. You’ll be clean, plumb batty inside o’ six months.”

The dog got up, after two unsuccessful attempts.

Never did I see such a strange sight in any animal. He put out one paw and staggered to the right. He put out another and staggered to the left. All the time, his eyes were half closed. He was quite insensible of our presence, for he was as drunk as any waterfront loafer. Staggering, stumbling and balancing, he made his way back to his place beside the stove, where, in a moment more, he was in a deep sleep and snoring, as a Westerner would put it, to beat the cars.

Meaghan noticed my interest in the phenomenon.

“That’s nothin’,” he volunteered. “Mike has his drink with me every night, for the sake o’ company. Why not? He doesn’t see any fun in lookin’ at the stars and watching the tide come up o’ nights. Worst is, he can’t stand up to liquor. It kind o’ gets his goat; yet he’s been tipplin’ for three years now.”

Jake finished off his cup of whisky.

“Good Heavens, man!” I exclaimed in disgust and dismay, “don’t you know you will kill yourself drinking that stuff in that way?”

“Guess nit,” he growled, but quite good-naturedly. “I ain’t started. I’ve been drinkin’ more’n that every night for ten years and I ain’t dead yet, not by a damn sight. No! nor I ain’t never been drunk, neither.”

He took up the other cupful of whisky as he spoke and slowly drained it off before my eyes. He laid the empty cup on the table with a grunt of satisfaction, pulling at his long moustaches in lazy pleasure.

“That’s my nightcap, George. Better’n seein’ stars, too.”

I could see his end.

“I’d much rather see stars than snakes,” I remarked. But Jake merely laughed it off.

I rose in a kind of cold perspiration. To me, this was horrible; drinking for no apparent reason.

He came with me to the door. His voice was as steady as could be; so were his legs. The effects of the liquor he had consumed did not show on him except maybe for a bloodshot appearance in the whites of his baby-blue eyes.

I was worried. I had known such another as Jake in the little village of Brammerton; and I knew what the inevitable end had been and what Jake’s would be also.

“Don’t be sore at me, George,” he pleaded. “It’s the only friend I got now.”

“It is not any friend of yours, Jake.”

“Well, maybe it ain’t, but I think it is and that’s about the only way we can reckon our friends.

“When you find I ain’t doin’ my share o’ the work because o’ the booze or when you catch me drunk, I’ll quit it. Good-night, George.”

I wished him good-night gruffly, hurried over the beach, scrambled into the boat and rowed quickly for my new home.

And, as I stood on the veranda for a long time before turning in, I watched the moon rise and skim her way behind and above the clouds, throwing, as she did so, great dark shadows and eerie lights on the sea.

In the vast, awesome stillness of the forest behind and the swishing and shuffling of the incoming tide on the shingles on the beach, I thought of what my good friend, K. B. Horsfal, had quoted:

“Where every prospect pleases and only man is vile.”