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An Intervention
by [?]

There was bad blood between the captain and mate who comprised the officers and crew of the sailing-barge “Swallow”; and the outset of their voyage from London to Littleport was conducted in glum silence. As far as the Nore they had scarcely spoken, and what little did pass was mainly in the shape of threats and abuse. Evening, chill and overcast, was drawing in; distant craft disappeared somewhere between the waste of waters and the sky, and the side-lights of neighbouring vessels were beginning to shine over the water. The wind, with a little rain in it, was unfavourable to much progress, and the trough of the sea got deeper as the waves ran higher and splashed by the barge’s side.

“Get the side-lights out, and quick, you,” growled the skipper, who was at the helm.

The mate, a black-haired, fierce-eyed fellow of about twenty-five, set about the task with much deliberation.

“And look lively, you lump,” continued the skipper.

“I don’t want none of your lip,” said the mate furiously; “so don’t you give me none.”

The skipper yawned, and stretching his mighty frame laughed disagreeably. “You’ll take what I give you, my lad,” said he, “whether it’s lip or fist.”

“Lay a finger on me and I’ll knife you,” said the mate. “I ain’t afraid of you, for all your size.”

He put out the side-lights, casting occasional looks of violent hatred at the skipper, who, being a man of tremendous physique and rough tongue, had goaded his subordinate almost to madness.

“If you’ve done skulking,” he cried, as he knocked the ashes out of his pipe, “come and take the helm.”

The mate came aft and relieved him; and he stood for a few seconds taking a look round before going below. He dropped his pipe, and stooped to recover it; and in that moment the mate, with a sudden impulse, snatched up a handspike and dealt him a crashing blow on the head. Half-blinded and stunned by the blow, the man fell on his knees, and shielding his face with his hands, strove to rise. Before he could do so the mate struck wildly at him again, and with a great cry he fell backwards and rolled heavily overboard. The mate, with a sob in his breath, gazed wildly astern, and waited for him to rise. He waited: minutes seemed to pass, and still the body of the skipper did not emerge from the depths. He reeled back in a stupor; then he gave a faint cry as his eye fell on the boat, which was dragging a yard or two astern, and a figure which clung desperately to the side of it Before he had quite realised what had happened, he saw the skipper haul himself on to the stern of the boat and then roll heavily into it.

Panic-stricken at the sight, he drew his knife to cut the boat adrift, but paused as he reflected that she and her freight would probably be picked up by some passing vessel. As the thought struck him he saw the dim form of the skipper come towards the bow of the boat and, seizing the rope, begin to haul in towards the barge.

“Stop!” shouted the mate hoarsely; “stop! or I’ll cut you loose.”

The skipper let the rope go, and the boat pulled up with a jerk.

“I’m independent of you,” the skipper shouted, picking up one of the loose boards from the bottom of the boat and brandishing it. “If there’s any sea on I can keep her head to it with this. Cut away.”

“If I let you come aboard,” said the mate, “will you swear to let bygones be bygones?”

“No!” thundered the other. “Whether I come aboard or not don’t make much difference. It’ll be about twenty years for you, you murdering hound, when I get ashore.”

The mate made no reply, but sat silently steering, keeping, however, a wary eye on the boat towing behind. He turned sick and faint as he thought of the consequences of his action, and vainly cast about in his mind for some means of escape.