Read CHAPTER NINE - YOUNG DECISION of Frank Oldfield Lost and Found , free online book, by T.P. Wilson, on ReadCentral.com.

One week later, and three men might be seen walking briskly along a by-street in Liverpool towards the docks.  These were Hubert Oliphant, Frank Oldfield, and Captain Merryweather, commander of the barque Sabrina, bound for South Australia.  The vessel was to sail next day, and the young men were going with the captain to make some final arrangements about their cabins.  Hubert looked bright and happy, poor Frank subdued and sad.  The captain was a thorough and hearty-looking sailor, brown as a coffee-berry from exposure to weather; with abundance of bushy beard and whiskers; broad-shouldered, tall, and upright.  It was now the middle of October, just three days after the flight of Samuel Johnson from Langhurst, as recorded in the opening of our story.  As the captain and his two companions turned the corner of the street they came upon a group which arrested their attention at once.

Standing not far from the door of a public-house was a lad of about fourteen years of age.  He looked worn and hungry, yet he had not at all the appearance of a beggar.  He was evidently strange to the place, and looked about him with an air of perplexity, which made it clear that he was in the midst of unfamiliar and uncongenial scenes.  Three or four sailors were looking hard at him, as they lounged about the public-house door, and were making their comments to one another.

“A queer-looking craft,” said one.  “Never sailed in these waters afore, I reckon.”

“Don’t look sea-worthy,” said another.

“Started a timber or two, I calculate,” remarked a third.

“Halloa! messmate,” shouted another, whose good-humoured face was unhappily flushed by drink, “don’t lie-to there in that fashion, but make sail, and come to an anchor on this bench.”

The lad did not answer, but stood gazing at the sailors in a state of utter bewilderment.

“Have you carried away your jawing-tackle, my hearty?” asked the man who had last addressed him.

“I can’t make head nor tail of what you say,” was the boy’s reply.

“Well, what’s amiss with you, then?  Can you compass that?”

“Ay,” was the reply; “I understand that well enough.  There’s plenty amiss with me, for I’ve had nothing to eat or drink since yesterday, and I haven’t brass to buy anything with.”

“Ah, I see.  I suppose you mean by that foreign lingo that you haven’t a shot in your locker, and you want a bit of summut to stow away in your hold.”

“I mean,” replied the lad, rather sulkily, “that I’m almost starved to death.”

“Well, it’s no odds,” cried the other.  “I can’t quite make you out; but I see you’ve hoisted signals of distress:  there, sit you down.  Landlord, a glass of grog, hot, and sweet, and strong.  Here, take a pull at that till the grog comes.”

He handed to him a pewter-pot as he spoke.

The boy pushed it from him with a look of disgust.

“I can’t touch it,” he said.  “If you’ll give me a mouthful of meat instead, I’ll thank you; and with all my heart too.”

“Meat!” exclaimed the sailor, in astonishment, “what’s the young lubber dreaming about?  Come, don’t be a fool; drink the ale, and you shall have some bread and cheese when you’ve finished your grog.”

“Jack,” expostulated one of his companions, “let the poor lad alone; he hasn’t a mind for the drink, perhaps he ain’t used to it, and it’ll only make him top heavy.  You can see he wants ballast; he’ll be over on his beam-ends the first squall if he takes the ale and grog aboard.”

“Avast, avast, Tom,” said the other, who was just sufficiently intoxicated to be obstinate, and determined to have his own way.  “If I take him in tow, he must obey sailing orders.  Grog first, and bread and cheese afterwards; that’s what I say.”

“And I’d die afore I’d touch a drop of the drink,” said the poor boy, setting his teeth firmly.  “I’ve seen enough, and more nor enough, of misery from the drink; and I’d starve to skin and bone afore I’d touch a drop of it.”

“Bravo, my lad, bravo!” cried Captain Merryweather, who had listened to the conversation with the greatest interest.  “Come hither, my poor boy; you shall have a good meal, and something better than the grog to wash it down with.”

“Oh, never heed Jack, captain,” cried one of the other sailors; “he’s half-seas over just now, and doesn’t know which way he’s steering.  I’ll see that the poor lad has something to eat.”

“Thank you kindly, my man,” replied the captain; “but he shall go with me, if he will.”

“Ay, sir,” said the boy thankfully, “I’ll go with you, for I’m sure you speak gradely.”

The whole party soon reached a temperance hotel, and here the captain ordered his young companion a substantial breakfast.

“Stay here, my lad,” he said, “till I come back; I want to have a word with you.  I am going with these gentlemen to the docks, but I shall be back again in half an hour.  By the way, what’s your name, my boy?”

A deep flush came over the other’s face at this question.  He stared at Captain Merryweather, and did not answer.

“I want to know your name.”

“My name?  Ah, well I don’t you see ”

“Why, surely you haven’t forgotten your own name?  What do they call you?”

“Poor fellow!” said Hubert; “his hunger has confused his brain.  He’ll be better when he has had his breakfast.”

But the boy had now recovered himself, and replied,

“I ax your pardon, captain; my name’s Jacob Poole.”

“Well, Jacob, you just wait here half an hour, and I shall have something to say to you when I come back, which may suit us both.”

When Captain Merryweather returned he found the boy looking out of the window at the streams of people going to and from the docks.  His head was resting on his two hands, and it appeared to the captain that he had been weeping.

“Jacob,” he cried, but there was no answer.

“Jacob Poole,” again cried the captain, in a louder voice.  The other turned round hastily, his face again flushed and troubled.

“Well, Jacob,” said the captain, sitting down, “I suppose you’re a teetotaller, from what I saw and heard to-day.”

“Yes, to the back-bone,” was the reply.

“Well, so am I. Now will you mind telling me, Jacob, what has brought you to Liverpool.  I am not asking questions just for curiosity, but I’ve taken a liking to you, and want to be your friend, for you don’t seem to have many friends here.”

Jacob hesitated; at last he said,

“Captain, you’re just right.  I’ve no friends here, nor am like to have.  I can’t tell you all about myself, but there’s nothing wrong about me, if you’ll take my word for it.  I’m not a thief nor a vagabond.”

“Well, I do believe you,” said the other; “there’s truth in your face and on your tongue.  I flatter myself I know a rogue when I see one.  Will you tell me, at any rate, what you mean to do in Liverpool?”

“That’s easier asked nor answered,” replied Jacob.  “Captain, I don’t mind telling you this much I’ve just run away to Liverpool to get out of the reach of the drink.  I am ready to do any honest work, if I can get it, but that don’t seem to be so easy.”

“Exactly so,” said Captain Merryweather.  “Now, what do you say, then, to going a voyage to Australia with me?  I’m in want of a cabin-boy, and I think you’d suit me.  I’ll feed and clothe you, and I’ll find you a situation over in Australia if you conduct yourself well on board ship; or, if you like to keep with me, I’ll give you on the return voyage what wages are right.”

The boy’s eyes sparkled with delight.  He sprang from his seat, grasped the captain’s hand warmly between his own, and cried,

“Captain, I’ll go with you to the end of the world and back again, wage or no wage.”

“I sail to-morrow,” said the other; “shall you be ready?”

“Ready this moment,” was the answer.  “I have nothing of my own but what I stand in.”

“Come along then with me,” said his kind friend; “I’ll see you properly rigged out, and you shall go on board with me at once.”

They had not long left the hotel, and were passing along a back street on their way to the outfitter’s, when a man came hastily out of a low public-house, and ran rather roughly against Captain Merryweather.

“Halloa, my friend,” cried the sailor, “have a care; you should keep a brighter look-out.  You’ve run me down, and might have carried away a spar or two.”

The man looked round, and muttered something.

“I’m sorry to see you coming out of such a place, my man,” added the captain.

“Well, but I’m not drunk,” said the other.

“Perhaps not, but you’re just on the right tack to get drunk.  Come, tell me what you’ve had.”

“I’ve only had seventeen pints of ale and three pennorth of gin.”

“Is it possible?” exclaimed the captain, half out loud, as the man walked off with a tolerably steady step.  “He says he’s not drunk after taking all that stuff aboard.  Jacob, you seem as if you knew something of him.”

“Ay, captain,” said Jacob, who had slunk behind the captain when he saw the man.  “I do, for sure; but you must excuse my telling you who he is, or where he comes from.”

“He’s not a good friend or companion for any one, I should think,” said the captain.

“He’s no friend of mine,” answered Jacob; “he’s too fond of the drink.  And yet he’s called to be a sober man by many, ’cos he brings some of his wage home on the pay-night.  Yet I’ve heard him say myself how he’s often spent a sovereign in drink between Saturday night and Monday morning.”

“And what do you suppose has brought him here?”

“I can’t tell, unless the mayster he works for has sent him over on count of summat.  It’s more like, however, as he’s come to see his sister as lives somewhere in these parts.”

“And you’d rather he didn’t know you are here, I suppose?”

“Just so, captain.  There’s them, perhaps, as’d be arter me if he were to tell ’em as he’d see’d me here; but I don’t think as he did see me; he were half fuddled:  but he never gets fairly drunk.”

“Well, Jacob, I don’t wish to pry into your own private concerns.  I’ll take it for granted that you’re dealing honestly by me.”

“You may be sure of that, captain.  I’ll never deceive you.  I haven’t done anything to disgrace myself; but I wish to get gradely out of the reach of such chaps as yon fellow you’ve just spoke to.  I’ve had weary work with the drink, and I wishes to make a fresh start, and to forget as I ever had any belonging me.  So it’s just what’ll suit me gradely to go with you over to Australia; and you must excuse me if I make mistakes at first; but I’ll do my best, and I can’t say anything beyond that.”

By this time they had reached the outfitter’s, where the captain saw Jacob duly rigged out and furnished with all things needful for the voyage.  They had left the shop and were on their way to the docks, when a tall sailor-looking man crossed over to them.  His face was bronzed from exposure, but was careworn and sad, and bore unmistakable marks of free indulgence in strong drinks.

“Merryweather, how are you, my friend?” he cried, coming up and shaking the captain warmly by the hand.

“Ah, Thomson, is that you?” said the other, returning the grasp.  “I was very sorry indeed to hear of your misfortune.”

“A bad business a shocking business,” said his friend, shaking his head despondingly.  “Not a spar saved.  Three poor fellows drowned.  And all my papers and goods gone to the bottom.”

“Yes, I heard something of it, and I was truly grieved.  How did it happen?”

“Why, I’ll tell you how it was.  I don’t know what it is, Merryweather, but you’re a very lucky fellow.  Some men seem born to luck:  it hasn’t been so with me.  It’s all gone wrong ever since I left Australia.  We’d fair weather and a good run till we were fairly round the Horn; but one forenoon the glass began to fall, and I saw there was heavy weather coming.  After a bit it came on to blow a regular gale.  The sea got up in no time, and I had to order all hands up to reef topsails.  We were rather short-handed, for I could hardly get men when I started, for love or money.  Well, would you believe it? half a dozen of the fellows were below so drunk that they couldn’t stand.”

“Ah, I feared,” said Captain Merryweather, “that the drink had something to do with your troubles.  But how did they manage to get so tipsy?”

“Oh, they contrived to get at one of the spirit-casks.  They bored a hole in it with a gimlet, and sucked the rum out through a straw.  There was nothing for it but to send up the steward, and Jim, my cabin-boy, along with the others who were on deck.  But poor Jim was but a clumsy hand at it; and as they were lying out on the yard, the poor fellow lost his hold, and was gone in a moment.  I never caught one look at him after he fell.  Ay, but that wasn’t all.  About a week after, I was wanting the steward one morning to fetch me something out of the lazarette; so I called him over and over again.  He came at last, but so tipsy that I could make nothing of him; and I had to start him off to the steerage, and take on another man in his place.  He’d been helping himself to the spirits.  It was very vexing, you’ll allow; for he was quite a handy chap, and I got on very poorly afterwards without him.  I don’t know how you manage, but you seem always to get steady men.”

“Yes,” said Captain Merryweather; “because I neither take the drink myself nor have it on board.”

“Ay, but I can never get on without my glass of grog,” said the other.

“Then I’m afraid you’ll never get your men to do without it.  There’s nothing like example ­`example’s better than precept.’”

“I believe you’re right.  But you haven’t heard the end of my misfortunes, nor the worst either.  It was a little foggy as we were getting into the Channel, and I’d given, of course, strict orders to keep a good look-out; so two of our sharpest fellows went forward when it began to get dark, and I had a steady man at the wheel.  I’d been on deck myself a good many hours; so I just turned in to get a wink of sleep, leaving the first mate in charge.  I don’t know how long I’d slept, for I was very weary, when all in a moment there came a dreadful crash, and I knew we were run into.  I was out and on deck like a shot; but the sea was pouring in like a mill-stream, and I’d only just time to see the men all safe in the Condor the ship that ran into us and get on board myself, before the poor Elizabeth went down head foremost.  It’s very strange.  I hadn’t been off the deck ten minutes, and that was the first time I’d gone below for the last sixteen hours.  It’s just like my luck.  The captain of the Condor says we were to blame; and our first mate says their men were to blame.  I can’t tell how it was.  It was rather thick at the time; but we ought to have seen one another’s lights.  Some one sung out on the other ship; but it was too late then, and our two poor fellows who were forward looking out were both lost.  It’s very strange; don’t you think so?”

“It’s very sad,” replied the other; “and I’m heartily sorry for it.  It’s a bad job anyhow; and yet, to tell you the honest truth, I’m not so very much surprised, for I suspect that the drink was at the bottom of it.”

“No, no; you’re quite mistaken there.  I never saw either the mate or the man at the wheel, or any of the men who were then on deck, drunk, or anything like it, during the whole voyage.”

“That may be,” said the other; “but I did not say it was drunkenness, but the drink, that I thought was at the bottom of it.  The men may have been the worse for drink without being drunk.”

“I don’t understand you.”

“No, I see you don’t; that’s the worst of it.  Very few people do see it, or understand it; but it’s true.  A man’s the worse for drink when he’s taken so much as makes him less fit to do his work, whatever it may be.  You’ll think it rather strange, perhaps, in me to say so; but I do say it, because I believe it, that more accidents arise from the drink than from drunkenness, or from moderate drinking, as it is called, than from drunkenness.”

“How so?”

“Why, thus.  A man may take just enough to confuse him, or to make him careless, or to destroy his coolness and self-possession, without being in the least drunk; or he may have taken enough to make him drowsy, and so unfit to do work that wants special attention and watchfulness.”

“I see what you mean,” said the other.

“Perhaps you’d all been drinking an extra glass when you found yourselves so near home.”

“Why, yes.  To tell you the truth, we had all of us a little more than usual that night; and yet I’ll defy any man to say that we were not all perfectly sober.”

“But yet, in my way of looking at it,” said Captain Merryweather, “you were the worse for liquor, because less able to have your wits about you.  And that’s surely a very serious thing to look at for ourselves, and our employers too; for if we’ve taken just enough to make us less up to our work, we’re the worse for drink, though no man can say we’re drunk.  Take my advice, Thomson, and keep clear of the grog altogether, and then you’ll find your luck come back again.  You’ll find it better for head, heart, and pocket, take my word for it.”

“I believe you’re right.  I’ll think of what you’ve said,” was the reply; and they parted.

“Jacob, my lad,” said Captain Merryweather, as they walked along, “did you hear what Captain Thomson said?”

“Ay, captain; and what you said too.  And I’m sure you spoke nothing but the real truth.”

“Well, you just mark that, Jacob.  There are scores of accidents and crimes from drunkenness, and they get known, and talked about, and punished; but there are hundreds which come from moderate drinking, or from the drink itself, which are never traced.  Ships run foul of one another, trains come into collision, houses get set on fire; and the drink is at the bottom of most of it, I believe, because people get put off their balance, and ain’t themselves, and so get careless, or confused, or excited, and then mischief follows.  And yet no one can say they’re drunk; and where are you to draw the line?  A man’s the worse for drink long before he’s anything like intoxicated; for it is in the very nature of the drink to fly at once to a man’s brain.  Ah, give me the man or lad, Jacob, that takes none.  His head is clear, his hand’s steady, his eye is quick.  He’s sure not to have taken too much, because he has taken none at all. But here we are.  There lies my good ship, the barque Sabrina.  You shall come on board with me at once, and see your quarters.”