My father and mother meet after an absence of six years—she dis-covers that he is no longer a coxswain but a boatswain's mate.
While my father and Ben are thus engaged, I will give the reader a description of the latter.
Ben was a very tall, broad-shouldered old fellow, but stooping a little from age. I should think he must have been at least sixty, if not more; still he was a powerful, sinewy man. His nose, which was no small one, had been knocked on one side, as he told me, by the flukes (i.e., tail) of a whale, which cut in half a boat of which he was steersman. He had a very large mouth, with very few teeth in it, having lost them by the same accident; which, to use his own expression, had at the time "knocked his figure-head all to smash." He had sailed many years in the whale fisheries, had at last been pressed, and served as quartermaster on board of a frigate for eight or nine years, when his ankle was broken by the rolling of a spar in a gale of wind. He was in consequence invalided for Greenwich. He walked stiff on this leg, and usually supported himself with a thick stick. Ben had noticed me from the time that my mother first came to Fisher's Alley. He was the friend of my early days, and I was very much attached to him.
A minute or two afterward my father pushed the pot of porter to him. Ben drank, and then said:
"Those be nice children, both on 'em—I know them well."
"And what kind of a craft is the mother?" replied my father.
"Oh! why, she's a little queer at times—she's always so mighty particular about gentility."
"Do you know why?" replied my father.
Ben shook his head.
"Then I'll tell you: because she was once a lady's ladies' maid."
"Well," replied Ben, "I don't understand much about titles and nobility, and those sort of things; but I'm sorry she's gone down in the world, for though a little particular about gentility, she's a good sort of woman in her way, and keeps up her character, and earns an honest livelihood."
"So much the better for her," replied my father, who refilled his pipe and continued to smoke in silence.
My mother had gone into the back kitchen to wash, which was the cause (not having been summoned) of her being so long absent.
Virginia, who had become quite sociable, was passing her little fingers through my father's large whiskers, while he every now and then put his pipe out of his mouth to kiss her. I had the porter-pot on my knees, my father having told me to take a swig, when my mother entered the room.
"Well, Mr. Benjamin, I shouldn't wonder—but—Oh! mercy, it's he!" cried my mother. "Oh! be quick—sal-wolatily!"
"Sail who? What the devil does she mean?" said my father, rising up and putting my sister off his knee.
"I never heard of her," replied Ben, also getting up; "but Mistress Saunders seems taken all aback, anyhow. Jack, run and fetch a bucket of water!"
"Jack, stay where you are," cried my mother, springing from the chair on which she had thrown herself. "Oh, dear me! the shock was so sudden—I'm so flustered. Who'd have thought to have seen you?"
"Are you her brother?" inquired Ben.
"No; but I'm her husband," replied my father.
"Well, it's the first time I've heard that she had one—but I'll be off, for Mistress Saunders is too genteel to kiss, I see, before company." Ben then took up his stick and left the house.
It may be as well here to remark that during his absence my father had fallen in with one of the men who had been employed in the press-gang. From him he learned that a woman had given the information by which he was taken. He made the man, who was present when my mother called upon the officer, describe her person, and the description in every point was so accurate that my father had no doubt in his mind but that it was my mother who had betrayed him. This knowledge had for years rankled in his breast, and he had come home, not only from a wish to see how things were going on, but to reproach my mother with her treachery.
Whether my mother's conscience smote her, or that she perceived by my father's looks that a squall was brewing, I know not; but as soon as Ben had left the house, she shut the street-door that the neighbors might not hear. Having so done, she turned to my father, who had resumed his seat and his pipe.
"Well," said she, putting her apron to her eyes, "you have been away a good six years, and left me to get on how I could with these two poor orphanless children."
"You know best why I went," replied my father, "and by whose means I was walked off in such a hurry."
"Me?" replied my mother.
"Yes, you," responded my father.
"Well, what next?" cried she.
"I'll tell you what next," said my father, rising, and taking about eighteen inches of inch-and-a-half rope out of his pocket, "Look you, ma'am, when I first found out that it was by your peaching that I was sent on board of the tender, I made up this colt, and I vowed that I would keep it in my pocket till I served you out. Now the time's come."
Here my father flourished his rope's end. My mother would have flown to the door, but my father was beforehand with her; he turned the key, and, to the astonishment of Virginia and me, he seized my mother, and, holding her at arm's length, gave her several blows—not severe ones, I must acknowledge, indeed, they could not have hurt her.
"There," said my father, "it's well for you, my Lady's ladies' maid, that I did not fall in with you when I first made up this colt; and it's well for you that I've heard a good character of you from the old chap who has just now left the house, or you'd have smarted for the false trick you played upon me. Howsomever, I've kept my oath, and you may thank your stars that it's not worse."
My mother, who had not uttered a cry during the punishment, but only looked very indignant, now that my father had finished his speech, and was rolling up his colt to put it in his pocket, suddenly threw herself down on the floor, screaming murder with all her might. The noise summoned the neighbors—all Fisher's Alley was in an uproar, and our house was besieged with people, who attempted to force their way in—for my mother continued her screams, and poor little Virginia became so frightened that she also roared as loud as her mother.
"I've more than two minds," said my father, taking the rope's end out of his pocket again; "but howsomever, since you wish it, all the world shall know it."
My father put his colt into his pocket, and went to unlock the door. My mother, perceiving what he was about, immediately rose and hastened upstairs to her own room. My father then told the neighbors what had occurred, and why my mother had been punished, and the verdict of Fisher's Alley was, "sarved her right." Ben the Whaler, who was outside with the others, espoused my father's cause, and as soon as the people dispersed my father invited him to join him in his pipe and pot.
Little Virginia, still terrified, had crept up to her mother. I, on the contrary, felt the highest respect for one who could dare to punish my mother, who had so often punished me; and the knowledge that he was my father inspired me with a feeling of tenderness toward him which I could not repress. I was old enough to understand why my mother had received such treatment, and I could not feel angry with my father; I therefore stayed below, and went for the porter as was required.
I believe that at first it had been my father's intentions to have administered a much severer castigation to my mother, and then to have left the house, taking me with him, for he had not been apprised of the birth of Virginia; but whatever were his intentions before he came, or for the morrow, it is certain that he continued to smoke and talk with old Ben the Whaler till a very late hour, while I sat by and listened.