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I laughed, although it was no laughing matter, at the plight the liquidator was now in. He was changed in a moment from the spruce and natty personage into a miserable and draggled being. From every part of him the salt water was streaming, and the curl was completely taken out of his whiskers. He could not speak from terror, which the boat- boys soon saw, for none are quicker than negroes to detect signs of fear in those whom they are accustomed to consider superior to themselves. Familiar with the surf, and full of mischievous fun, they began to shout and gesticulate with the settled purpose of making matters appear worse than they were, and of enjoying the white man's discomfiture,--all but the patrao, who was an old hand, and on whom depended the safety of us all. He kept a steady lookout seaward, and stood upright and firm, grasping his oar with both hands. With him it was a point of honour to bring the white men intrusted to his care safely through the surf.
We waited for more than half an hour, bow on, meeting each roller as it came to us; and by the end of that time the unfortunate liquidator had evidently given up all hope of ever reaching the shore. Luckily, the worst was soon to pass. After one last tremendous wave there was a lull for a few moments, and the patrao, who had watched for such a chance, swiftly turned the boat round, and giving the word to the crew, they pulled lustily toward the shore. In a few minutes we were again in safety. The boat grounded on the beach, the oars were tossed into the sea; the crew sprang overboard; some of them seized the new arrival; I clambered on the back of the patrao; a crowd of negroes, who had been waiting on the beach, laid hold of the tow-rope of the boat, and it and we were landed simultaneously on the dry sand.
Once on shore Mr. Bransome, for that was the new man's name, rapidly recovered his presence of mind and manner, and, by way of covering his past confusion, remarked that he supposed the surf was seldom so bad as it then was. I replied in an offhand way, meaning to make fun of him, that what he had passed through was nothing, and appealed to the patrao to confirm what I had said. That negro, seeing the joke, grinned all over his black face; and Mr. Bransome, perceiving that he was being laughed at, snatched a good-sized stick from a native standing near, and struck the patrao repeatedly over the back.
In vain Sooka, for that was the patrao's name, protested, and demanded to know what wrong thing he had done. The agent was furious, and showered his blows upon the black. Equally in vain I shouted that Sooka had done well by us, and that he, Mr. Bransome, was making an enemy of a man who would have him now and then in his power. At length Sooka took to his heels, and sure enough, when he had got a little way off, he began to threaten vengeance for what he had received. I sympathised with him, for I knew what a loss to his dignity it was to be beaten without cause before his fellows, and I feared that Mr. Bransome would indeed be sorry, sooner or later, for what he had done.
I now suggested to him, by way of diverting his thoughts from poor Sooka, that standing on the beach in wet clothes was the very way to catch the coast-fever straight off, and he instantly suffered himself to be carried up the factory. There Jackson received him in a sort of "who on earth are you?" manner; and Mr. Bransome, clearing his throat, announced himself and his authority, adding that he intended to make the factory a point of departure to all the others on the coast; then, very abruptly, he requested Jackson to prepare quarters for him without delay.
The change that came over Jackson's face as he learned the quality of the stranger and his requests was great. The old salt, who had been king of his house and of the Point for so long a time, had evidently never even thought of the probability of such an intrusion as was now presented to him, and he was amazed at what he considered to be the unwarrantable assurance of the stranger. However, he recovered himself smartly, and asked the new man if he had any written credentials.
"Certainly," replied he, pulling out a document all wet with salt water. "Here is a letter from Messrs. Flint Brothers, of which, no doubt, you will have a copy in your mail-bag."
Jackson took the letter and opened it, and seemed to read it slowly to himself. All at once he started, looked at the new agent, advanced a step or two toward him, muttering, "Bransome, Bransome," then stopped and asked him in a strange constrained voice, "Is /your/ name Bransome?"
"Yes," replied the latter, astonished at the old man's question.
"I knew a Bransome once," said Jackson, steadily, "and he was a scoundrel."
For a moment the two men looked at each other--Jackson with a gleam of hatred in his eyes, while Bransome had a curiously frightened expression on his face, which blanched slightly. But he quickly resumed his composure and peremptory way, and said, "Show me a room; I must get these wet things off me."
As, however, he addressed himself this time to me rather than to Jackson,--who, indeed, regarded him no longer, but stood with the letter loose in his hand, looking at the floor of the room, as if in deep meditation,--I showed him into my own room, where I ordered his trunks to be brought. These, of course, were wet; but he found some things in the middle of them that were not more than slightly damp, and with the help of a pair of old canvas trousers of mine he managed to make his appearance at dinner-time.
Jackson was not at the meal. He had left the house shortly after his interview with the new agent, and had, I fancied, gone on one of his solitary rambles. At any rate he did not return until late that night.
I thought Mr. Bransome seemed to be somewhat relieved when he saw that the old man was not coming; and he became more affable than I had expected him to be, and relinquished his arrogant style altogether when he began to question me about Jackson--who he was? what had he been? how long he had lived on the coast? To all which questions I returned cautious answers, remembering that I was under a promise to the old man not to repeat his story.
By the next morning, to my surprise, Jackson appeared to have become reconciled to the fact that he had been superseded by a man who knew nothing of the coast, and of his own accord he offered to tell Mr. Bransome the clues to the letter-locks on the doors of the various store-rooms; for we on the coast used none but letter-locks, which are locks that do not require a key to open them. But Mr. Bransome expressed, most politely, a wish that Jackson should consider himself still in charge of the factory, at any rate until the whole estate of the unfortunate Flint Brothers could be wound up; and he trusted that his presence would make no difference to him.
This was a change, on the part of both men, from the manners of the previous day; and yet I could not help thinking that each but ill concealed his aversion to the other.
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Stories by English Authors in Africa -by- Various