Produced by David Widger
List of Illustrations
Mrs. John Boxer stood at the door of the shop with her hands clasped on her apron. The short day had drawn to a close, and the lamps in the narrow little thorough-fares of Shinglesea were already lit. For a time she stood listening to the regular beat of the sea on the beach some half-mile distant, and then with a slight shiver stepped back into the shop and closed the door.
The little shop with its wide-mouthed bottles of sweets was one of her earliest memories. Until her marriage she had known no other home, and when her husband was lost with the North Star some three years before, she gave up her home in Poplar and returned to assist her mother in the little shop.
In a restless mood she took up a piece of needle-work, and a minute or two later put it down again. A glance through the glass of the door leading into the small parlour revealed Mrs. Gimpson, with a red shawl round her shoulders, asleep in her easy-chair.
Mrs. Boxer turned at the clang of the shop bell, and then, with a wild cry, stood gazing at the figure of a man standing in the door-way. He was short and bearded, with oddly shaped shoulders, and a left leg which was not a match; but the next moment Mrs. Boxer was in his arms sobbing and laughing together.
Mrs. Gimpson, whose nerves were still quivering owing to the suddenness with which she had been awakened, came into the shop; Mr. Boxer freed an arm, and placing it round her waist kissed her with some affection on the chin.
“He’s come back!” cried Mrs. Boxer, hysterically.
“Thank goodness,” said Mrs. Gimpson, after a moment’s deliberation.
“He’s alive!” cried Mrs. Boxer. “He’s alive !”
She half-dragged and half-led him into the small parlour, and thrusting him into the easy-chair lately vacated by Mrs. Gimpson seated herself upon his knee, regardless in her excitement that the rightful owner was with elaborate care selecting the most uncomfortable chair in the room.
“Fancy his coming back!” said Mrs. Boxer, wiping her eyes. “How did you escape, John? Where have you been? Tell us all about it.”
Mr. Boxer sighed. “It ‘ud be a long story if I had the gift of telling of it,” he said, slowly, “but I’ll cut it short for the present. When the North Star went down in the South Pacific most o’ the hands got away in the boats, but I was too late. I got this crack on the head with something falling on it from aloft. Look here.”
He bent his head, and Mrs. Boxer, separating the stubble with her fingers, uttered an exclamation of pity and alarm at the extent of the scar; Mrs. Gimpson, craning forward, uttered a sound which might mean anything—even pity.
“When I come to my senses,” continued Mr. Boxer, “the ship was sinking, and I just got to my feet when she went down and took me with her. How I escaped I don’t know. I seemed to be choking and fighting for my breath for years, and then I found myself floating on the sea and clinging to a grating. I clung to it all night, and next day I was picked up by a native who was paddling about in a canoe, and taken ashore to an island, where I lived for over two years. It was right out o’ the way o’ craft, but at last I was picked up by a trading schooner named the Pearl, belonging to Sydney, and taken there. At Sydney I shipped aboard the Marston Towers, a steamer, and landed at the Albert Docks this morning.”
“Poor John,” said his wife, holding on to his arm. “How you must have suffered!”
“I did,” said Mr. Boxer. “Mother got a cold?” he inquired, eying that lady.
“No, I ain’t,” said Mrs. Gimpson, answering for herself. “Why didn’t you write when you got to Sydney?”
“Didn’t know where to write to,” replied Mr. Boxer, staring. “I didn’t know where Mary had gone to.”