Seven-and-twenty years ago, and a bleak evening in March. There are gas-lamps flaring down in Ratcliff Highway, and the sound of squeaking fiddles and trampling feet in many public-houses tell of festivity provided for Jack-along-shore. The emporiums of slop-sellers are illuminated for the better display of tarpaulin coats and hats, so stiff of build that they look like so many sea-faring suicides, pendent from the low ceilings. These emporiums are here and there enlivened by festoons of many-coloured bandana handkerchief's; and on every pane of glass in shop or tavern window is painted the glowing representation of Britannia's pride, the immortal Union Jack.
Two men sat drinking and smoking in a little parlour at the back of an old public-house in Shadwell. The room was about as large as a good-sized cupboard, and was illuminated in the day-time by a window commanding a pleasant prospect of coal-shed and dead wall. The paper on the walls was dark and greasy with age; and every bit of clumsy, bulging deal furniture in the room had been transformed into a kind of ebony by the action of time and dirt, the greasy backs and elbows of idle loungers, the tobacco-smoke and beer-stains of half a century.
It was evident that the two men smoking and drinking in this darksome little den belonged to the seafaring community. In this they resembled each other; but in nothing else. One was tall and stalwart; the other was small, and wizen, and misshapen. One had a dark, bronzed face, with a frank, fearless expression; the other was pale and freckled, and had small, light-gray eyes, that shifted and blinked perpetually, and shifted and blinked most when he was talking with most animation. The first had a sonorous bass voice and a resonant laugh; the second spoke in suppressed tones, and had a trick of dropping his voice to a whisper whenever he was most energetic.
The first was captain and half-owner of the brigantine 'Pizarro', trading between the port of London, and the coast of Mexico. The second was his clerk, factotum, and confidant; half-sailor, half-landsman; able to take the helm in dangerous weather, if need were; and able to afford his employer counsel in the most intricate questions of trading and speculation.