'I did not see him again that trip, but on my next (I had a six months' charter) I went up to the store. Ten yards away from the door Blake's scolding met my ears, and when I came in he gave me a glance of utter wretchedness; Egstrom, all smiles, advanced, extending a large bony hand. "Glad to see you, captain. . . . Sssh. . . . Been thinking you were about due back here. What did you say, sir? . . . Sssh. . . . Oh! him! He has left us. Come into the parlour." . . . After the slam of the door Blake's strained voice became faint, as the voice of one scolding desperately in a wilderness. . . . "Put us to a great inconvenience, too. Used us badly — I must say . . ." "Where's he gone to? Do you know?" I asked. "No. It's no use asking either," said Egstrom, standing bewhiskered and obliging before me with his arms hanging down his sides clumsily, and a thin silver watch-chain looped very low on a rucked-up blue serge waistcoat. "A man like that don't go anywhere in particular." I was too concerned at the news to ask for the explanation of that pronouncement, and he went on. "He left — let's see — the very day a steamer with returning pilgrims from the Red Sea put in here with two blades of her propeller gone. Three weeks ago now." "Wasn't there something said about the Patna case?" I asked, fearing the worst. He gave a start, and looked at me as if I had been a sorcerer. "Why, yes! How do you know? Some of them were talking about it here. There was a captain or two, the manager of Vanlo's engineering shop at the harbour, two or three others, and myself. Jim was in here too, having a sandwich and a glass of beer; when we are busy — you see, captain — there's no time for a proper tiffin. He was standing by this table eating sandwiches, and the rest of us were round the telescope watching that steamer come in; and by-and-by Vanlo's manager began to talk about the chief of the Patna; he had done some repairs for him once, and from that he went on to tell us what an old ruin she was, and the money that had been made out of her. He came to mention her last voyage, and then we all struck in. Some said one thing and some another — not much — what you or any other man might say; and there was some laughing. Captain O'Brien of the Sarah W. Granger, a large, noisy old man with a stick — he was sitting listening to us in this arm-chair here — he let drive suddenly with his stick at the floor, and roars out, 'Skunks!' . . . Made us all jump. Vanlo's manager winks at us and asks, 'What's the matter, Captain O'Brien?' 'Matter! matter!' the old man began to shout; 'what are you Injuns laughing at? It's no laughing matter. It's a disgrace to human natur' — that's what it is. I would despise being seen in the same room with one of those men. Yes, sir!' He seemed to catch my eye like, and I had to speak out of civility. 'Skunks!' says I, 'of course, Captain O'Brien, and I wouldn't care to have them here myself, so you're quite safe in this room, Captain O'Brien. Have a little something cool to drink.' 'Dam' your drink, Egstrom,' says he, with a twinkle in his eye; 'when I want a drink I will shout for it. I am going to quit. It stinks here now.' At this all the others burst out laughing, and out they go after the old man. And then, sir, that blasted Jim he puts down the sandwich he had in his hand and walks round the table to me; there was his glass of beer poured out quite full. 'I am off,' he says — just like this. 'It isn't half-past one yet,' says I; 'you might snatch a smoke first.' I thought he meant it was time for him to go down to his work. When I understood what he was up to, my arms fell — so! Can't get a man like that every day, you know, sir; a regular devil for sailing a boat; ready to go out miles to sea to meet ships in any sort of weather. More than once a captain would come in here full of it, and the first thing he would say would be, 'That's a reckless sort of a lunatic you've got for water-clerk, Egstrom. I was feeling my way in at daylight under short canvas when there comes flying out of the mist right under my forefoot a boat half under water, sprays going over the mast-head, two frightened niggers on the bottom boards, a yelling fiend at the tiller. Hey! hey! Ship ahoy! ahoy! Captain! Hey! hey! Egstrom & Blake's man first to speak to you! Hey! hey! Egstrom & Blake! Hallo! hey! whoop! Kick the niggers — out reefs — a squall on at the time — shoots ahead whooping and yelling to me to make sail and he would give me a lead in — more like a demon than a man. Never saw a boat handled like that in all my life. Couldn't have been drunk — was he? Such a quiet, soft-spoken chap too — blush like a girl when he came on board. . . .' I tell you, Captain Marlow, nobody had a chance against us with a strange ship when Jim was out. The other ship-chandlers just kept their old customers, and . . ."
'Egstrom appeared overcome with emotion.
'"Why, sir — it seemed as though he wouldn't mind going a hundred miles out to sea in an old shoe to nab a ship for the firm. If the business had been his own and all to make yet, he couldn't have done more in that way. And now . . . all at once . . . like this! Thinks I to myself: 'Oho! a rise in the screw — that's the trouble — is it?' 'All right,' says I, 'no need of all that fuss with me, Jimmy. Just mention your figure. Anything in reason.' He looks at me as if he wanted to swallow something that stuck in his throat. 'I can't stop with you.' 'What's that blooming joke?' I asks. He shakes his head, and I could see in his eye he was as good as gone already, sir. So I turned to him and slanged him till all was blue. 'What is it you're running away from?' I asks. 'Who has been getting at you? What scared you? You haven't as much sense as a rat; they don't clear out from a good ship. Where do you expect to get a better berth? — you this and you that.' I made him look sick, I can tell you. 'This business ain't going to sink,' says I. He gave a big jump. 'Good-bye,' he says, nodding at me like a lord; 'you ain't half a bad chap, Egstrom. I give you my word that if you knew my reasons you wouldn't care to keep me.' 'That's the biggest lie you ever told in your life,' says I; 'I know my own mind.' He made me so mad that I had to laugh. 'Can't you really stop long enough to drink this glass of beer here, you funny beggar, you?' I don't know what came over him; he didn't seem able to find the door; something comical, I can tell you, captain. I drank the beer myself. 'Well, if you're in such a hurry, here's luck to you in your own drink,' says I; 'only, you mark my words, if you keep up this game you'll very soon find that the earth ain't big enough to hold you — that's all.' He gave me one black look, and out he rushed with a face fit to scare little children."
'Egstrom snorted bitterly, and combed one auburn whisker with knotty fingers. "Haven't been able to get a man that was any good since. It's nothing but worry, worry, worry in business. And where might you have come across him, captain, if it's fair to ask?"
'"He was the mate of the Patna that voyage," I said, feeling that I owed some explanation. For a time Egstrom remained very still, with his fingers plunged in the hair at the side of his face, and then exploded. "And who the devil cares about that?" "I daresay no one," I began . . . "And what the devil is he — anyhow — for to go on like this?" He stuffed suddenly his left whisker into his mouth and stood amazed. "Jee!" he exclaimed, "I told him the earth wouldn't be big enough to hold his caper."'