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Down South or Yacht Adventure in Florida

 

CHAPTER XIII.

MR. COBBINGTON AND HIS PET RATTLESNAKE.

I turned out the next morning, or rather the same morning, only in season for breakfast. I had put my letter in the mail-box, and it had gone ashore in the first boat at four o'clock. I kept an anchor watch all night in port, which was divided up amongst all hands in the sailing and engineer's department, except myself. Word had been passed from watch to watch to call the steward and a boat's crew at half past three. The boats were hoisted up to the davits at night, and it required some time to get one into the water.

When I went in to breakfast, I found that Washburn had gone ashore in the steward's boat, and had not yet returned. He was the only person on board, besides myself, who had liberty to leave the vessel without my permission, or his, if I was not on board. But the steamer had been put in perfect order the day before, and she never was in better condition than when I looked her over after breakfast. The day was bright and clear, as nearly all the days were in Florida. Every officer and seaman had put on his best uniform, and we were in "show" order, above and below decks.

The American flag was flying at the peak, and, in honor of the English guests who were to come on board, I had hoisted the British flag at the fore. Both boats' crews were in readiness to bring off the party as soon as they appeared on the Market Wharf. About nine o'clock we got a signal from that locality, but there was no party there, and the signal came from the mate.

"You went off early, Washburn," I said, as he came up the gangway steps.

"I was afraid the matter would get cold if I waited," replied the mate, who seemed to be in excellent humor.

"What matter is that?" I inquired.

"I went ashore to look up that snaky lodger of Captain Boomsby's," answered Washburn. "There was certainly a lodger there, who furnished his own room, and stayed about two weeks."

"Did he furnish his room for a stay of only two weeks?" I inquired.

"I have not been able to find the person yet. He had his furniture carried to an auction-room, where it was sold."

"How did you learn all this?"

"I found Boomsby's saloon first. About five o'clock the porter of the store next to it began to sweep off the sidewalk. I saw that my uniform took his eye, and he was as polite to me as though I had been an admiral in the United States Navy. I talked with him awhile, asking him questions about the city. Finally I brought the matter of the conversation down to the subject of saloons. I thought there were plenty of them. He told me some of them had a separate bar for colored people, where they sold the cheapest corn whiskey and apple brandy for ten cents a glass, and made nine cents on every glass they sold."

"That's just the business for Captain Boomsby: it is just mean enough for him," I added.

"The porter spoke of the Boomsby saloon as a new one opened a few weeks before. The keeper had a bar for colored customers in a back room, with an entrance from the lane in the rear. When he said this, I began to pump him in regard to Boomsby. I finally asked if the captain took boarders or lodgers. He had one; but this one had had a quarrel with the saloonist's wife, and had left. He did not know his name, or where he went to. He said the cartman that stood at the next corner had carted off his furniture."

"Then you went for the cartman," I suggested.

"I went for him; but I could not find him for some time, and that is what made me so late," continued Washburn. "The porter told me he was hauling baggage from the Charleston steamer, which had just got in, to the Carlton Hotel. His name was Jackman, and it was on his wagon. I found the cartman, but he was so busy I had no chance to speak to him until half past eight. I took my breakfast at the Carlton, which is kept by Maine people. I introduced myself to one of the proprietors; and of course they knew my father. I told him I had been waiting a long time to speak to Jackman. He immediately called him into the office.

"Thus introduced to Jackman, he was willing to tell me all he knew on any subject. He said he had carried the furniture of the lodger to an auction-room, and his trunks and other things to the St. Johns House. The lodger's name was Cobbington; and Jackman thought he was poor."

"He must have been, to take a room at Captain Boomsby's house."

"I asked Jackman what things besides the trunks he had carried to the St. Johns Hotel. He replied that Cobbington had a pet rattlesnake and a box of alligators."

"All this goes to confirm Captain Boomsby's explanation," I added.

"I think it has a tendency that way. I asked Jackman if the lodger had any other snakes; but he knew of no others, and had seen none in the attic rooms from which he took his load. I went next to the St. Johns House, which is kept by a lady. She gave me all the information she could. Mr. Cobbington's rattlesnake had got out of his box, and had been killed by one of the boarders. He was so angry at the loss of the reptile that he left the house at once. The landlady did not know where he had gone. Under the circumstances, she had not taken the pains to inquire. She did not want any gentleman in her house who kept a rattlesnake in his chamber; and I was of just her way of thinking. She did not remember what cartman had conveyed his baggage from the house. If I had had an hour more, I think I could have found the man; for the landlady gave me the day on which he left."

"I don't think it will be of much use to follow the matter any further," I suggested. "This story makes it probable that Cobbington had other snakes."

"It may make it possible, but not probable. It is only a matter of fact, and I am going to get to the bottom of it if I can," persisted the mate.

"I beg pardon, Mr. Washburn, but your breakfast is waiting for you," said Griffin Leeds, stepping up to the mate at this moment.

I started when I heard the silky voice of the octoroon. I had heard no step to indicate his approach, and I feared that he had listened to something one of us had said.

"I have been to breakfast," replied the mate, rather savagely for him; and I saw that he had the same fear.

The waiter hastened back to the forward cabin, where he belonged. Washburn called to Ben Bowman, who was standing at the door of the engine-room, and asked him how long Griffin had stood behind us. The assistant engineer thought he had been there two or three minutes, at least, waiting for a chance to speak to one of us. I was vexed at the circumstance. If Cornwood was the agent of Captain Boomsby, and Griffin Leeds was the tool of the Floridian, our conversation would all be reported to the principal in the conspiracy, always granting there was any truth in our surmises.

"I suppose we shall get back from this excursion some time to-night," said Washburn, thoughtfully.

"I think we shall get back before dark," I replied.

"I don't say there is anything in what we were talking about last night, but there may be. If there is anything in it, Cornwood will tell Boomsby, after we return, what we have been talking about," replied the mate.

"Griffin will find a chance to tell Cornwood that you have been looking up the lodger, and Cornwood will carry it to Boomsby," I repeated.

"Just so. Now, we must fix things a little. Don't let Cornwood go on shore to-night."

"How can I keep him? He is hardly like the other members of the ship's company."

"You can need him for some purpose or other," suggested the mate, with a smile. "We must fight them with their own weapons."

"I was thinking to-day that I wanted to lay out the trip up the river with him. I bought a large pocket-map of Florida to-day, so that I could do it understandingly, though where we go will depend largely on the will and pleasure of our passengers. I can keep him for this purpose," I said.

"All right; and I will go ashore as soon as the mudhook touches the sand on our return," added Washburn. "There are several carriages coming down Market Wharf."

Both boats were sent to the wharf, and Washburn went off in one of them to superintend the seating of the party in them. All our extra stools and chairs had been arranged on the quarter-deck, forecastle, and hurricane-deck. There were enough of them for twice the number of persons expected, but no one could tell where the party would choose to sit, and there were enough to accommodate them in any one place they might select. Gopher was hard at work getting ready for the dinner, and Ben was expected to help him as soon as the party were on board.

I stood at the gangway, ready to receive the guests. Suddenly a band on the wharf struck up a lively air, and I found we were not to depend upon our own people for the music. The port boat came up first; and our boatmen were so much accustomed to this kind of duty, that they put the passengers on board without delay or inconvenience to them. There were six boat-loads, including the band of twelve pieces. The boats were hoisted up, and the anchor weighed by our steam windlass.

I had been introduced to all the excursionists as they came on board, and I had directed the waiters to show them to such parts of the vessel as they might select. When I went to the pilot-house, I found the seats all occupied by Owen and certain ladies he had invited there. As usual they were all the youngest and prettiest of the party. Cornwood stood at the wheel, as though he had chosen the duty he intended to perform. I had not procured a pilot, for I had been up and down the river five times, and I thought I knew enough about it to pilot the vessel myself. But I wished to test Cornwood's ability, and I told him to go ahead, giving him no further instructions.

He rang the bells correctly, and handled the wheel like an old salt. I was rather disappointed to find that he understood his business perfectly. His brag was not all brag. I had become considerably prejudiced against him by all that had been said; but I felt that I could do him justice. The scenery below the city is very pleasant, to say the least. The orange groves, and the dwellings, many of them occupied by people from the North, either as settlers or as winter residents, made a picturesque view from the river. Cornwood did not seem to be wholly occupied with the wheel, for he explained the nature of the country when he found that the party in the pilot-house were willing to listen to him. The herons, cranes, and many other birds were new to us.

"Mayport on the starboard hand," said the guide, when we had reached the mouth of the river. "The houses in that village are mostly occupied by fishermen, who catch shad and other fish in the winter and spring, and a good many southern people spend the summer here in cottages."

Cornwood directed the head of the steamer towards the other shore, and soon brought her to a pier at Pilot Town.


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