The Madness of Mr. Lister
Produced by David Widger
By W.W. Jacobs
THE MADNESS OF MR. LISTER
[Illustration: "The Madness of Mr. Lister."]
Old Jem Lister, of the _Susannah,_ was possessed of two devils--the love
of strong drink and avarice--and the only thing the twain had in common
was to get a drink without paying for it. When Mr. Lister paid for a
drink, the demon of avarice masquerading as conscience preached a
teetotal lecture, and when he showed signs of profiting by it, the demon
of drink would send him hanging round public-house doors cadging for
drinks in a way which his shipmates regarded as a slur upon the entire
ship's company. Many a healthy thirst reared on salt beef and tickled
with strong tobacco had been spoiled by the sight of Mr. Lister standing
by the entrance, with a propitiatory smile, waiting to be invited in to
share it, and on one occasion they had even seen him (him, Jem Lister,
A.B.) holding a horse's head, with ulterior motives.
It was pointed out to Mr. Lister at last that his conduct was reflecting
discredit upon men who were fully able to look after themselves in that
direction, without having any additional burden thrust upon them. Bill
Henshaw was the spokesman, and on the score of violence (miscalled
firmness) his remarks left little to be desired. On the score of
profanity, Bill might recall with pride that in the opinion of his
fellows he had left nothing unsaid.
"You ought to ha' been a member o' Parliament, Bill," said Harry Lea,
when he had finished.
"It wants money," said Henshaw, shaking his head.
Mr. Lister laughed, a senile laugh, but not lacking in venom.
"That's what we've got to say," said Henshaw, turning upon him suddenly.
"If there's anything I hate in this world, it's a drinking miser. You
know our opinion, and the best thing you can do is to turn over a new
"Take us all in to the Goat and Compasses," urged Lea; "bring out some o'
those sovrins you've been hoarding."
Mr. Lister gazed at him with frigid scorn, and finding that the
conversation still seemed to centre round his unworthy person, went up on
deck and sat glowering over the insults which had been heaped upon him.
His futile wrath when Bill dogged his footsteps ashore next day and
revealed his character to a bibulous individual whom he had almost
persuaded to be a Christian--from his point of view--bordered upon the
maudlin, and he wandered back to the ship, wild-eyed and dry of throat.
For the next two months it was safe to say that every drink he had he
paid for. His eyes got brighter and his complexion clearer, nor was
he as pleased as one of the other sex might have been when the
self-satisfied Henshaw pointed out these improvements to his companions,
and claimed entire responsibility for them. It is probable that Mr.
Lister, under these circumstances, might in time have lived down his
taste for strong drink, but that at just that time they shipped a new
He was a big, cadaverous young fellow, who looked too closely after his
own interests to be much of a favourite with the other men forward. On
the score of thrift, it was soon discovered that he and Mr. Lister had
much in common, and the latter, pleased to find a congenial spirit, was
disposed to make the most of him, and spent, despite the heat, much of
his spare time in the galley.
"You keep to it," said the greybeard impressively; "money was made to be
took care of; if you don't spend your money you've always got it. I've
always been a saving man--what's the result?"
The cook, waiting some time in patience to be told, gently inquired what
"'Ere am I," said Mr. Lister, good-naturedly helping him to cut a
cabbage, "at the age of sixty-two with a bank-book down below in my
chest, with one hundered an' ninety pounds odd in it."
"One 'undered and ninety pounds!" repeated the cook, with awe.
"To say nothing of other things," continued Mr. Lister, with joyful
appreciation of the effect he was producing. "Altogether I've got a
little over four 'undered pounds."
The cook gasped, and with gentle firmness took the cabbage from him as
being unfit work for a man of such wealth.
"It's very nice," he said, slowly. "It's very nice. You'll be able to
live on it in your old age."
Mr. Lister shook his head mournfully, and his eyes became humid.
"There's no old age for me," he said, sadly; "but you needn't tell them,"
and he jerked his thumb towards the forecastle.
"No, no," said the cook.
"I've never been one to talk over my affairs," said Mr. Lister, in a low
voice. "I've never yet took fancy enough to anybody so to do. No, my
lad, I'm saving up for somebody else."
"What are you going to live on when you're past work then?" demanded the
Mr. Lister took him gently by the sleeve, and his voice sank with the
solemnity of his subject: "I'm not going to have no old age," he said,
"Not going to live!" repeated the cook, gazing uneasily at a knife by his
side. "How do you know?"
"I went to a orsepittle in London," said Mr. Lister. "I've been to two
or three altogether, while the money I've spent on doctors is more than I
like to think of, and they're all surprised to think that I've lived so
long. I'm so chock-full o' complaints, that they tell me I can't live
more than two years, and I might go off at any moment."
"Well, you've got money," said the cook, "why don't you knock off work
now and spend the evenin' of your life ashore? Why should you save up
for your relatives?"
"I've got no relatives," said Mr. Lister; "I'm all alone. I 'spose I
shall leave my money to some nice young feller, and I hope it'll do 'im
With the dazzling thoughts which flashed through the cook's brain the
cabbage dropped violently into the saucepan, and a shower of cooling
drops fell on both men.
"I 'spose you take medicine?" he said, at length.
"A little rum," said Mr. Lister, faintly; "the doctors tell me that it is
the only thing that keeps me up--o' course, the chaps down there "--he
indicated the forecastle again with a jerk of his head--"accuse me o'
taking too much."
"What do ye take any notice of 'em for?" inquired the other, indignantly.
"I 'spose it is foolish," admitted Mr. Lister; "but I don't like being
misunderstood. I keep my troubles to myself as a rule, cook. I don't
know what's made me talk to you like this. I 'eard the other day you was
keeping company with a young woman."
"Well, I won't say as I ain't," replied the other, busying himself over
"An' the best thing, too, my lad," said the old man, warmly. "It keeps
you stiddy, keeps you out of public-'ouses; not as they ain't good in
moderation--I 'ope you'll be 'appy."
A friendship sprang up between the two men which puzzled the remainder
of the crew not a little.
The cook thanked him, and noticed that Mr. Lister was fidgeting with a
piece of paper.
"A little something I wrote the other day," said the old man, catching
his eye. "If I let you see it, will you promise not to tell a soul about
it, and not to give me no thanks?"
The wondering cook promised, and, the old man being somewhat emphatic on
the subject, backed his promise with a home made affidavit of singular
power and profanity.
"Here it is, then," said Mr. Lister.
The cook took the paper, and as he read the letters danced before him.
He blinked his eyes and started again, slowly. In plain black and white
and nondescript-coloured finger-marks, Mr. Lister, after a general
statement as to his bodily and mental health, left the whole of his
estate to the cook. The will was properly dated and witnessed, and the
cook's voice shook with excitement and emotion as he offered to hand it
"I don't know what I've done for you to do this," he said.
Mr. Lister waved it away again. "Keep it," he said, simply; "while
you've got it on you, you'll know it's safe."
From this moment a friendship sprang up between the two men which puzzled
the remainder of the crew not a little. The attitude of the cook was as
that of a son to a father: the benignancy of Mr. Lister beautiful to
behold. It was noticed, too, that he had abandoned the reprehensible
practice of hanging round tavern doors in favour of going inside and
drinking the cook's health.
[Illustration: "A friendship sprang up between the two men which puzzled
the remainder of the crew not a little."]
For about six months the cook, although always in somewhat straitened
circumstances, was well content with the tacit bargain, and then, bit by
bit, the character of Mr. Lister was revealed to him. It was not a nice
character, but subtle; and when he made the startling discovery that a
will could be rendered invalid by the simple process of making another
one the next day, he became as a man possessed. When he ascertained that
Mr. Lister when at home had free quarters at the house of a married
niece, he used to sit about alone, and try and think of ways and means of
securing capital sunk in a concern which seemed to show no signs of being
"I've got a touch of the 'art again, lad," said the elderly invalid, as
they sat alone in the forecastle one night at Seacole.
"You move about too much," said the cook. "Why not turn in and rest?"
Mr. Lister, who had not expected this, fidgeted. "I think I'll go ashore
a bit and try the air," he said, suggestively. "I'll just go as far as
the Black Horse and back. You won't have me long now, my lad."
"No, I know," said the cook; "that's what's worrying me a bit."
"Don't worry about me," said the old man, pausing with his hand on the
other's shoulder; "I'm not worth it. Don't look so glum, lad."
"I've got something on my mind, Jem," said the cook, staring straight in
front of him.
"What is it?" inquired Mr. Lister.
"You know what you told me about those pains in your inside?" said the
cook, without looking at him.
Jem groaned and felt his side.
"And what you said about its being a relief to die," continued the other,
"only you was afraid to commit suicide?"
"Well?" said Mr. Lister.
"It used to worry me," continued the cook, earnestly. "I used to say to
myself, 'Poor old Jem,' I ses, 'why should 'e suffer like this when he
wants to die? It seemed 'ard.'"
"It is 'ard," said Mr. Lister, "but what about it?"
The other made no reply, but looking at him for the first time, surveyed
him with a troubled expression.
"What about it?" repeated Mr. Lister, with some emphasis.
"You did say you wanted to die, didn't you?" said the cook. "Now
"Suppose what?" inquired the old man, sharply. "Why don't you say what
you're agoing to say?"
"Suppose," said the cook, "some one what liked you, Jem--what liked you,
mind--'eard you say this over and over again, an' see you sufferin' and
'eard you groanin' and not able to do nothin' for you except lend you a
few shillings here and there for medicine, or stand you a few glasses o'
rum; suppose they knew a chap in a chemist's shop?"
"Suppose they did?" said the other, turning pale.
"A chap what knows all about p'isons," continued the cook, "p'isons what
a man can take without knowing it in 'is grub. Would it be wrong, do you
think, if that friend I was speaking about put it in your food to put you
out of your misery?"
"Wrong," said Mr. Lister, with glassy eyes. "Wrong. Look 'ere, cook--"
"I don't mean anything to give him pain," said the other, waving his
hand; "you ain't felt no pain lately, 'ave you, Jem?"
"Do you mean to say" shouted Mr. Lister.
"I don't mean to say anything," said the cook. "Answer my question. You
ain't felt no pain lately, 'ave you?"
"Have--you--been--putting--p'ison--in--my--wittles?" demanded Mr. Lister,
in trembling accents.
"If I 'ad, Jem, supposin' that I 'ad," said the cook, in accents of
reproachful surprise, "do you mean to say that you'd mind?"
"MIND," said Mr. Lister, with fervour. "I'd 'ave you 'ung!"
"But you said you wanted to die," said the surprised cook.
Mr. Lister swore at him with startling vigour. "I'll 'ave you 'ung," he
"Me," said the cook, artlessly. "What for?"
"For giving me p'ison," said Mr. Lister, frantically. "Do you think you
can deceive me by your roundabouts? Do you think I can't see through
The other with a sphinx-like smile sat unmoved. "Prove it," he said,
darkly. "But supposin' if anybody 'ad been givin' you p'ison, would you
like to take something to prevent its acting?"
"I'd take gallons of it," said Mr. Lister, feverishly.
The other sat pondering, while the old man watched him anxiously. "It's
a pity you don't know your own mind, Jem," he said, at length; "still,
you know your own business best. But it's very expensive stuff."
"How much?" inquired the other.
"Well, they won't sell more than two shillings-worth at a time," said the
cook, trying to speak carelessly, "but if you like to let me 'ave the
money, I'll go ashore to the chemist's and get the first lot now."
Mr. Lister's face was a study in emotions, which the other tried in vain
Then he slowly extracted the amount from his trousers-pocket, and handed
it over with-out a word.
"I'll go at once," said the cook, with a little feeling, "and I'll never
take a man at his word again, Jem."
He ran blithely up on deck, and stepping ashore, spat on the coins for
luck and dropped them in his pocket. Down below, Mr. Lister, with his
chin in his hand, sat in a state of mind pretty evenly divided between
rage and fear.
The cook, who was in no mood for company, missed the rest of the crew by
two public-houses, and having purchased a baby's teething powder and
removed the label, had a congratulatory drink or two before going on
board again. A chatter of voices from the forecastle warned him that the
crew had returned, but the tongues ceased abruptly as he descended, and
three pairs of eyes surveyed him in grim silence.
"What's up?" he demanded.
"Wot 'ave you been doin' to poor old Jem?" demanded Henshaw, sternly.
"Nothin'," said the other, shortly.
"You ain't been p'isoning 'im?" demanded Henshaw.
"Certainly not," said the cook, emphatically.
"He ses you told 'im you p'isoned 'im," said Henshaw, solemnly, "and 'e
give you two shillings to get something to cure 'im. It's too late now."
"What?" stammered the bewildered cook. He looked round anxiously at the
They were all very grave, and the silence became oppressive.
"Where is he?" he demanded.
Henshaw and the others exchanged glances. "He's gone mad," said he,
"Mad?" repeated the horrified cook, and, seeing the aversion of the crew,
in a broken voice he narrated the way in which he had been victimized.
"Well, you've done it now," said Henshaw, when he had finished. "He's
gone right orf 'is 'ed."
"Where is he?" inquired the cook.
"Where you can't follow him," said the other, slowly.
"Heaven?" hazarded the unfortunate cook. "No; skipper's bunk," said Lea.
"Oh, can't I foller 'im?" said the cook, starting up. "I'll soon 'ave
'im out o' that."
"Better leave 'im alone," said Henshaw. "He was that wild we couldn't do
nothing with 'im, singing an' larfin' and crying all together--I
certainly thought he was p'isoned."
"I'll swear I ain't touched him," said the cook.
"Well, you've upset his reason," said Henshaw; "there'll be an awful row
when the skipper comes aboard and finds 'im in 'is bed.
"'Well, come an' 'elp me to get 'im out," said the cook.
"I ain't going to be mixed up in it," said Henshaw, shaking his head.
"Don't you, Bill," said the other two.
"Wot the skipper'll say I don't know," said Henshaw; "anyway, it'll be
said to you, not----"
"I'll go and get 'im out if 'e was five madmen," said the cook,
compressing his lips.
"You'll harve to carry 'im out, then," said Henshaw. "I don't wish you
no 'arm, cook, and perhaps it would be as well to get 'im out afore the
skipper or mate comes aboard. If it was me, I know what I should do."
"What?" inquired the cook, breathlessly.
"Draw a sack over his head," said Henshaw, impressively; "he'll scream
like blazes as soon as you touch him, and rouse the folks ashore if you
don't. Besides that, if you draw it well down it'll keep his arms fast."
The cook thanked him fervently, and routing out a sack, rushed hastily on
deck, his departure being the signal for Mr. Henshaw and his friends to
make preparations for retiring for the night so hastily as almost to
savour of panic.
The cook, after a hasty glance ashore, went softly below with the sack
over his arm and felt his way in the darkness to the skipper's bunk. The
sound of deep and regular breathing reassured him, and without undue
haste he opened the mouth of the sack and gently raised the sleeper's
"Eh? Wha----" began a sleepy voice.
The next moment the cook had bagged him, and gripping him tightly round
the middle, turned a deaf ear to the smothered cries of his victim as he
strove to lift him out of the bunk. In the exciting time which followed,
he had more than one reason for thinking that he had caught a centipede.
"Now, you keep still," he cried, breathlessly. "I'm not going to hurt
He got his burden out of bed at last, and staggered to the foot of the
companion-ladder with it. Then there was a halt, two legs sticking
obstinately across the narrow way and refusing to be moved, while a
furious humming proceeded from the other end of the sack.
Four times did the exhausted cook get his shoulder under his burden and
try and push it up the ladder, and four times did it wriggle and fight
its way down again. Half crazy with fear and rage, he essayed it for the
fifth time, and had got it half-way up when there was a sudden
exclamation of surprise from above, and the voice of the mate sharply
demanding an explanation.
"What the blazes are you up to?" he cried.
"It's all right, sir," said the panting cook; "old Jem's had a drop too
much and got down aft, and I'm getting 'im for'ard again."
"Jem?" said the astonished mate. "Why, he's sitting up here on the
fore-hatch. He came aboard with me."
"Sitting," began the horrified cook; "sit--oh, lor!"
He stood with his writhing burden wedged between his body and the ladder,
and looked up despairingly at the mate.
"I'm afraid I've made a mistake," he said in a trembling voice.
The mate struck a match and looked down.
"Take that sack off," he demanded, sternly.
The cook placed his burden upon its feet, and running up the ladder stood
by the mate shivering. The latter struck another match, and the twain
watched in breathless silence the writhings of the strange creature below
as the covering worked slowly upwards. In the fourth match it got free,
and revealed the empurpled visage of the master of the _Susannah_. For
the fraction of a second the cook gazed at him in speechless horror, and
then, with a hopeless cry, sprang ashore and ran for it, hotly pursued by
his enraged victim. At the time of sailing he was still absent, and the
skipper, loth to part two such friends, sent Mr. James Lister, at the
urgent request of the anxious crew, to look for him.
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