Mrs. Wesley glanced towards the two ships and counted down threepence deliberately upon the thwart facing her, at the same time pursing up her lips to hide a smile. For the one ship lay moored stem and stern with her bows pointed up the river, and the other, drifting past, at this moment swung her tall poop into view with her windows flashing against the afternoon sun, and beneath them her name, the Josiah Childs, in tall gilt letters.
“Better make it a crown, ma’am,” the waterman repeated with a drunken chuckle.
Mrs. Wesley rose in her seat. Her hand went up, and Charles made sure she meant to box the man’s ears. He could not see the look on her face, but whatever it was it cowed the fellow, who seized his oars again and began to pull for dear life, as she sat back and laid her hand on the tiller.
“Easy, now,” she commanded, after twenty strokes or so. “Easy, and ship your oar, unless you want it broken!” But for answer he merely stared at her, and a moment later his starboard oar snapped its tholepin like a carrot, and hurled him back over his thwart as the boat ran alongside the Albemarle’s ladder.
“My friend,” said Mrs. Wesley coolly, “you have a pestilent habit of not listening. I hired you to row me to the Albemarle, and this, I believe, is she.” Then, with a glance up at the half-dozen grinning faces above the bulwarks, “Can I see Captain Bewes?”
“Your servant, ma’am.” The captain appeared at the head of the ladder; a red apple-cheeked man in shirt-sleeves and clean white nankeen breeches, who looked like nothing so much as an overgrown schoolboy.
“Is Mr. Samuel Annesley on board?”
Captain Bewes rubbed his chin. He had grown suddenly grave. “I beg your pardon,” said he, “but are you a kinswoman of Mr. Annesley’s?”
“I am his sister, sir.”
“Then I’ll have to ask you to step on board, ma’am. You may dismiss that rascal, and one of my boats shall put you ashore.”
He stepped some way down the ladder to meet her and she took his hand with trepidation, while the Albemarle’s crew leaned over and taunted the cursing waterman.
“There—that will do, my man. I don’t allow swearing here. Steady, ma’am, that’s right; and now give us a hand, youngster.”
“Is—is he ill?” Mrs. Wesley stammered.
“Who? Mr. Annesley? Not to my knowledge, ma’am.”
“Then he is on board? We heard he had taken passage with you.”
“Why, so he did; and, what’s more, to the best of my knowledge, he sailed. It’s a serious matter, ma’am, and we’re all at our wits’ ends over it; but the fact is—Mr. Annesley has disappeared.”
That same evening, in Mr. Matthew Wesley’s parlour, Johnson’s Court, Captain Bewes told the whole story—or so much of it as he knew. The disappearance from on board his ship of a person so important as Mr. Samuel Annesley touched his prospects in the Company’s service, and he did not conceal it. He had already reported the affair at the East India House and was looking forward to a highly uncomfortable interview with the Board of Governors: but he was concerned, too, as an honest man; and had jumped at Mrs. Wesley’s invitation to sup with her in Johnson’s Court and tell what he could.