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A Case of Desertion
by [?]

The sun was just rising as the small tub-like steamer, or, to be more correct, steam-barge, the Bulldog, steamed past the sleeping town of Gravesend at a good six knots per hour.

There had been a little discussion on the way between her crew and the engineer, who, down in his grimy little engine-room, did his own stoking and everything else necessary. The crew, consisting of captain, mate, and boy, who were doing their first trip on a steamer, had been transferred at the last moment from their sailing-barge the Witch, and found to their discomfort that the engineer, who had not expected to sail so soon, was terribly and abusively drunk. Every moment he could spare from his engines he thrust the upper part of his body through the small hatchway, and rowed with his commander.

“Ahoy, bargee!” he shouted, popping up like a jack-in-the-box, after a brief cessation of hostilities.

“Don’t take no notice of ‘im,” said the mate. “‘E’s got a bottle of brandy down there, an’ he’s ‘alf mad.”

“If I knew anything o’ them blessed engines,” growled the skipper, “I’d go and hit ‘im over the head.”

“But you don’t,” said the mate, “and neither do I, so you’d better keep quiet.”

“You think you’re a fine feller,” continued the engineer, “standing up there an’ playing with that little wheel. You think you’re doing all the work. What’s the boy doing? Send him down to stoke.”

“Go down,” said the skipper, grinning with fury, and the boy reluctantly obeyed.

“You think,” said the engineer pathetically, after he had cuffed the boy’s head and dropped him down below by the scruff of his neck, “you think because I’ve got a black face I’m not a man. There’s many a hoily face ‘ides a good ‘art.”

“I don’t think nothing about it,” grunted the skipper; “you do your work, and I’ll do mine.”

“Don’t you give me none of your back answers,” bellowed the engineer, “‘cos I won’t have ’em.”

The skipper shrugged his shoulders and exchanged glances with his sympathetic mate. “Wait till I get ‘im ashore,” he murmured.

“The biler is wore out,” said the engineer, re-appearing after a hasty dive below. “It may bust at any moment.”

As though to confirm his words fearful sounds were heard proceeding from below.

“It’s only the boy,” said the mate, “he’s scared–natural.”

“I thought it was the biler,” said the skipper, with a sigh of relief. “It was loud enough.”

As he spoke the boy got his head out of the hatchway, and, rendered desperate with fear, fairly fought his way past the engineer and gained the deck.

“Very good,” said the engineer, as he followed him on deck and staggered to the side. “I’ve had enough o’ you lot.”

“Hadn’t you better go down to them engines?” shouted the skipper.

“Am I your SLAVE?” demanded the engineer tearfully. “Tell me that. Am I your slave?”

“Go down and do your work like a sensible man,” was the reply.

At these words the engineer took umbrage at once, and, scowling fiercely, removed his greasy jacket and flung his cap on the deck. He then finished the brandy which he had brought up with him, and gazed owlishly at the Kentish shore.

“I’m going to have a wash,” he said loudly, and, sitting down, removed his boots.

“Go down to the engines first,” said the skipper, “and I’ll send the boy to you with a bucket and some soap.”

“Bucket!” replied the engineer scornfully, as he moved to the side. “I’m going to have a proper wash.”

“Hold him!” roared the skipper suddenly. “Hold him!”

The mate, realising the situation, rushed to seize him, but the engineer, with a mad laugh, put his hands on the side and vaulted into the water. When he rose the steamer was twenty yards ahead.

“Go astarn!” yelled the mate.

“How can I go astarn when there’s nobody at the engines?” shouted the skipper, as he hung on to the wheel and brought the boat’s head sharply round. “Git a line ready.”