Whenever a new fellow came to MacLaren’s, he was sure to be pumped pretty dry without loss of time, as regarded his name, his father’s occupation, and the number and appearance of his sisters. Other points were discussed more at leisure.
MacLaren’s, you must know, was situated in a village a few miles out of Liverpool; there were nearly sixty fellows there, so you may be sure several of them had made up their minds to go to sea as soon as ever they left school: and as two or three of these slept in my bedroom — the “juniors'” room — that will account for what took place there after old Wiggy took away the candle every night. Old Wiggy was the French master, and if you could have seen his head — well, never mind.
Among the other impositions on parents which were set forth in MacLaren’s prospectus, none of which were ever kept to, except perhaps the “experienced dentist,” who used to come every half, and take out all the best double teeth in the fellows’ heads; amongst these, I say, it was stated that “a library of well selected books is provided for the use of the young gentlemen.”
Now I appeal to any one who went there, if there ever was a greater crammer than this. What does well selected mean, I should like to know? Are “Principles of Geology,” or “Life of Rev. Benjamin Bubb,” or “General Gazetteer,” or “Treatise on Conic Sections,” well selected? I suppose next they’ll call the Latin Grammar and Arithmetic a well-selected library of books. To be sure, there were two or three odd volumes of the “Waverley Novels,” but as they were all the middles of the tales, of course that took a good deal from the interest of reading them.
The only two really good books in the lot were “Curiosities of Nature and Art,” and “Lives of Buccaneers and Pirates.” These two were always in the hands of some of the “juniors,” and were read out in the bedroom so often, that at last we could have done almost as well without the books as with them. (Whoever read them had to sit on the floor in one corner with the candle partly under a bed for fear of surprises.) The “Pirates ” was, of course, the greater favourite of the two, and Calomel I do really think knew it all off from one end to the other; and was always persuading fellows to walk the plank by means of a bolster off the beds on to the floor; and building caves with the bedclothes.
He got tired of that after he was pulled out of his cave one night by MacLaren, and walked into with a slipper. The fellows were sorry for old Calomel, of course, but it was great fun for them, and they couldn’t help larking him a good deal about the idea of a pirate being had out of his cave and slippered.
Well, this brings me to what I was going to say. One night, in the middle of a half, after we had gone to bed, MacLaren came into our room with a candle and a new fellow. He told us the new fellow’s name was Hartley; waited till he undressed, watched him into bed with little Binns, next bed to Calomel, wished us good-night, told us to go to sleep, and left us. Go to sleep, O yes, I dare say! The minute the sitting-room door was heard to slam upon MacLaren, you may fancy, if you can, the volley of questions directed at Binns’s bed.
The new chap was very talkative: said he had been living with his aunt in Yorkshire for years, but that she having suddenly got married, he had been sent home to Liverpool, and thence to Mac’s. Had both brothers and sisters, but having been so little at home didn’t know much about them. He asked if Mac was very strict; and when we said “we believed him; wasn’t he, just?” he said he was afraid it wouldn’t suit him, for that he had been used to his own fling in Yorkshire: and then went on to that extent about guns, horses, and dogs, that Calomel at last asked him, rather drily, if he had nothing left to show for all this? He replied that he had a watch which his aunt had given him.
“Oh,” says Calomel, “a watch is nothing: my father has two, a chronometer and a repeater.”
“And mine,” retorted the new chap, “has three.”
In short, it became a regular bragging match between the two; and if the new fellow told as many lies as to our certain knowledge Calomel did, why he was a pretty good hand at it, that’s all. In spite of all Dobbs could say though, the new chap always trumped his best cards: when Dobbs mentioned a pony at home (which we knew he hadn’t got), Hartley was down on him with his aunt’s stables, and when Calomel spoke of a pistol which he possessed, the other declared that Dobbs should only have seen the rabbit-shooting in Yorkshire, and moreover stated that there were hanging up in his father’s house in Liverpool two guns, four pistols, and a sword, of which he intended to avail himself during the next holidays.
“By the bye,” said Calomel, rather sneeringly, (and we all at once remembered that the question hadn’t been asked before, but it was out of all rule, you see, a fellow coming in in the dark):
”what is your father?”
“My father?” said the new chap very quietly, “Oh, he’s a pirate.”
“A what?” shouted Calomel, jumping straight upright in bed, and so loud, that the other had only time to repeat in the same matter-of-fact way “A pirate,” before we heard old Mac come out of the sitting-room, and along the passage to our door.
Down went Dobbs in such a hurry, that we heard his head go with a great bang against the bed’s; so that he couldn’t help giving a loud “Oh!” though the rest of us were breathing very hard, to make believe we were asleep.
Mac called out that if he heard any more noise, he would do what should keep us awake for some time, and then went off. More would very likely have been said then, so great was the sensation caused by the new fellow’s declaration, but as we didn’t hear Mac’s sitting room door shut again, we couldn’t tell but that he was somewhere listening.
Not that there was anything of the sneak in Mac; only he liked to catch fellows at it. Very different to old Wiggy, whose real name was Girard, and who was hated by everybody for coaxing (or cogling as we used to call it) till he got something against the fellows, and then making their knuckles black and blue with a big door key.
There was no time to say much next morning, for every one always lay in bed as long as he dared after the first bell rang, and had only time to jump into his clothes, and get down to prayers before the second bell stopped. Calomel just asked once during dressing, so as to prevent any mistake, “What did you say your father was, last night, you sir?” But the reply was just given in the same cool way, ” A pirate.” Calomel said no more.
After breakfast, however, a lot of us got together in the play-ground, and talked the matter over. The existence of pirates was beyond question: there was no reason to doubt that they possessed sons like other people, and perhaps left their businesses to them; but we were not aware of any recorded case in which such sons had been sent to a “classical and commercial academy,” as Mac’s was called in the prospectus.
We couldn’t help allowing, however, that the new fellow’s manner was favourable and convincing. We argued, too, that if this gentleman were really a pirate, it would account for the possession not only of the three watches, which were doubtless acquired in the exercise of his profession, but also of the guns, pistols, and sword, which would be to him in that case the merest necessaries of existence.
In short, most of us inclined to the belief, that the new fellow’s story was true; though a few, headed by Calomel, urged that we had only his word for it, and that we knew nothing of him. But then Calomel was jealous, and no wonder: he had been the chief authority on such points for so long, that he wasn’t likely to relish giving in, as he would have to do, of course, to a fellow with such advantages of birth.
However, we agreed to ask Hartley more about it, and by way of beginning, we proposed that he should show us the watch his aunt had given him. He pulled it out at once: it was an old silver one, very nearly round, so that it made a great swelling upon his chest, as he wore it in his waistcoat pocket. It had a great effect on the fellows; it was just such a watch as might have been buried in an iron chest for ever so long, and though it didn’t come from his father, but from his aunt, that was nothing; it was in the family. It clinched his story, and we christened him “Crossbones” on the spot. As for the watch, that always was called “Oliver Cromwell,” it was so old and solid.
You may be sure we asked Crossbones a good many questions about his father, but at first he didn’t seem to think much about the matter; and it was only after a week or two’s listening to the bedroom readings that he began to let out by degrees, and gave us at different times a good many particulars: how that his father’s vessel was a regular clipper, carried one hundred guns, had a crew of eighty men (many of them blacks), and was called the Blue Blazer; the guns he thought, when pressed on the point, were from one hundred and eighty to two hundred pounders.
He stated, moreover, that the meals both of officers and crew were always served on gold plates and dishes, which were mere drugs on board by reason of their abundance; and that the only beverage ever touched was rum with gunpowder in it — all which his father had told him in moments of confidence.
This beat books into fits; and even Calomel felt that he must give in, which he did, and became a great chum of Crossbones. Between them they established a society, of which every member was to swear solemnly not to let out anything; which he couldn’t have done if he wished, as there was nothing to let out.
However, we all tied up the ends of our fingers with twine in the bedroom one night, and having pricked them with a quill pen, let them bleed into a gill cup, over which we then took the oath on a prayer-book. The chief rule was, that no member should speak to another member about the society’s affairs, without first putting his right forefinger to the side of his nose, and saying, “Blood!” If all right, the other member put his finger to his nose, and said, “Thunder!” then they both whistled, and then it was all right. Of course everybody knew the other members, but it was necessary to be very particular — societies always are.
Crossbones and Calomel were first and second officers, and at first everybody was doing nothing but whistling and blooding and thundering; but after a time it got tiresome, having nothing more to say when you found you were at liberty to speak. Besides, the fellows got into a way of laughing so that they couldn’t with a skull upon it in the other. On a cannon close by hung a large blue cloak, supposed to be the means of hiding Crossbones’ father’s professional dress from the public when he came ashore to visit Crossbones and the rest of the family.
When this picture was shown to Crossbones he shook his head, as much as to say his father was not unlike it, but more so: so the lights were touched up a bit, and so many daggers and pistols hung about the figure, that you would have wondered there was room for them.
Well, during the midsummer holidays, as most of our set went out of town, none of us happened to see Crossbones; and when we got back to school, we found to our astonishment that he always fought shy of our favourite subject when it was brought up, took no interest in the bedroom stories, and gave up the presidency of the society, thereby settling it altogether.
None of us could make out what had come over him (though the idea was started at one time that his father had been caught and hanged), and he lost a good deal of popularity: and I do believe none of us would have cared to see him in the holidays, but that on the last night of the half he redeemed his character nobly, by volunteering to put eight and-seventy cockchafers in old Wiggy’s bed. Wiggy had quarrelled with Mac, and was leaving; and when next morning he came stamping with rage into the schoolroom, and called out to Mac, “Sare, dey have put eensects een my bed!” we all felt that Crossbones was indeed still our friend, and we made it up to meet him the first Thursday after we got home.
When we met on that day — Crossbones, Calomel, I, and two other fellows — the first question was what we should do? We all voted for going straight down to the river, but Crossbones proposed bathing in an old clay pit he knew of, where two people had been nearly drowned, and which was supposed to be forty feet deep in places. Of course that was very tempting, but we thought it too cold for bathing; and at last we settled that it was to be the docks, where, however, Crossbones seemed very unwilling to go. We asked him if his father was at home; but he said, No; he was in the West Indies, or some of those places, or else we might have gone on board his vessel.
On we went, however, and just as we got in sight of the river, a voice called out, “Well, Ned, whither bound, my lad?” and a man caught hold of Crossbones by the shoulder. Crossbones went as red as fire, and didn’t know which way to look, but he said, very sheepishly, ”Oh, nowhere particular,” and was in a great hurry to be off.
But the stranger was evidently not in a hurry, and turning to us, he said, “Servant, young gentlemen; schoolmates of Ned’s, I expect: I’m his father.” How we all stared at him and each other, you may fancy. Here was a man with a red face, dressed in blue pilot cloth, calling himself Crossbones’ father. No daggers, nor pistols, nor banners, nor boots, nor red legs, nor brass helmets. There was the smell of rum about him, it is true, so strong that I was obliged to pull out my pocket handkerchief and pretend to blow my nose, as he talked to us, but not a sign of the gunpowder.
Still we all felt, as appeared afterwards on comparing notes, that these things might admit of explanation, and that matters might turn out better than they looked; so when Crossbones’ father said to him, ”Ned, mayhap these young gents would like to have a look at the little craft,” we jumped at the proposal, and eagerly followed him down to the pier. We couldn’t talk, we were in such a state of expectation, and so not one word was said until Crossbones’ father led the way on board a small sloop, rather larger than an ordinary fishing smack, with a big number 15 on the sail, and which I supposed must be a kind of captain’s boat to the Blue Blazer.
But no sooner were we well on board, than Calomel gave a long whistle, and then caught me such a slap on the back as nearly choked me: “It isn’t a pirate, but a pilot,” says he. And so it was. Crossbones’ father was very kind to us; gave us biscuit and rum (which made us very ill afterwards), and did all he could to amuse us: but nothing could change the horrid fact of his being a quiet, respectable, seafaring man.
Crossbones wouldn’t go ashore with us; he told me afterwards that he couldn’t have stood our chaff: but I was so sorry for him, that, before I left, I said to him, “Crossbones, what made you tell us those confounded yarns?”
“Well,” he said, “when I first went to Mac’s I’d been so long in the middle of Yorkshire, that I didn’t know the difference between a pilot and a pirate, and I thought my father ‘t was one. And when I heard from the book about pirates, I made up what I thought sounded best.”
“But about the three watches, and the guns and pistols, Crossbones?”
“Well, then,” said Crossbones, irritably, “what did Calomel brag in that way for? I wasn’t going to be beaten by him.”
Next half, Crossbones, from one cause or another, had about twenty fights with different fellows, and pirates went a good deal out of fashion.
Author: C. P. William.