A Master of Craft

by W. W. Jacobs

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A pretty girl stood alone on the jetty of an old-fashioned wharf at Wapping, looking down upon the silent deck of a schooner below. No smoke issued from the soot-stained cowl of the galley, and the fore-scuttle and the companion were both inhospitably closed. The quiet of evening was over everything, broken only by the whirr of the paddles of a passenger steamer as it passed carefully up the centre of the river, or the plash of a lighterman's huge sweep as he piloted his unwieldy craft down on the last remnant of the ebb-tide. In shore, various craft sat lightly on the soft Thames mud: some sheeting a rigid uprightness, others with their decks at various angles of discomfort.

The girl stood a minute or two in thought, and put her small foot out tentatively towards the rigging some few feet distant. It was an awkward jump, and she was still considering it, when she heard footsteps behind, and a young man, increasing his pace as he saw her, came rapidly on to the jetty.

"This is the Foam, isn't it?" enquired the girl, as he stood expectantly. "I want to see Captain Flower."

"He went ashore about half an hour ago," said the other.

The girl tapped impatiently with her foot. "You don't know what time he'll be back, I suppose?" she enquired.

He shook his head. "I think he's gone for the evening," he said, pondering; "he was very careful about his dress."

The ghost of a smile trembled on the girl's lips. "He has gone to call for me," she said. "I must have missed him. I wonder what I'd better do."

"Wait here till he comes back," said the man, without hesitation.

The girl wavered. "I suppose, he'll guess I've come here," she said, thoughtfully.

"Sure to," said the other promptly.

"It's a long way to Poplar," she said, reflectively. "You're Mr. Fraser, the mate, I suppose? Captain Flower has spoken to me about you."

"That's my name," said the other.

"My name's Tyrell," said the girl, smiling. "I daresay you've heard Captain Flower mention it?"

"Must have done," said Fraser, slowly. He stood looking at the girl before him, at her dark hair and shining dark eyes, inwardly wondering why the captain, a fervid admirer of the sex, had not mentioned her.

"Will you come on board and wait?" he asked. "I'll bring a chair up on deck for you if you will."

The girl stood a moment in consideration, and then, with another faint reference to the distance of Poplar from Wapping, assented. The mate sprang nimbly into the ratlins, and then, extending a hand, helped her carefully to the deck.

"How nice it feels to be on a ship again!" said the girl, looking contentedly about her, as the mate brought up a canvas chair from below. "I used to go with my father sometimes when he was alive, but I haven't been on a ship now for two years or more."

The mate, who was watching her closely, made no reply. He was thinking that a straw hat with scarlet flowers went remarkably well with the dark eyes and hair beneath it, and also that the deck of the schooner had never before seemed such an inviting place as it was at this moment.

"Captain Flower keeps his ship in good condition," said the visitor, somewhat embarrassed by his gaze.

"He takes a pride in her," said Fraser; "and it's his uncle's craft, so there's no stint. She never wants for paint or repairs, and Flower's as nice a man to sail under as one could wish. We've had the same crew for years."

"He's very kind and jolly," said the girl.

"He's one of the best fellows breathing," said the mate, warmly; "he saved my life once—went overboard after me when we were doing over ten knots an hour, and was nearly drowned himself."

"That was fine of him," said Miss Tyrell, eagerly. "He never told me anything about it, and I think that's rather fine too. I like brave men. Have you ever been overboard after anybody?"

Fraser shook his head somewhat despondently. "I'm not much of a swimmer," said he.

"But you'd go in for anybody if you saw them drowning?" persisted Miss Tyrell, in a surprised voice.

"I don't know, i'm sure," said Fraser. "I hope I should."

"Do you mean to say," said Miss Tyrell, severely, "that if I fell into the river here, for instance, you wouldn't jump in and try to save me?"

"Of course I should." said Fraser, hotly. "I should jump in after you if I couldn't swim a stroke."

Miss Tyrell, somewhat taken aback, murmured her gratification.

"I should go in after you," continued the mate who was loath to depart from the subject, "if it was blowing a gale, and the sea full of sharks."

"What a blessing it is there are no sharks round our coast," said Miss Tyrell, in somewhat of a hurry to get away from the mate's heroism. "Have you ever seen one?"

"Saw them in the Indian Ocean when I was an apprentice," replied Fraser.

"You've been on foreign-going ships then?" said the girl. "I wonder you gave it up for this."

"This suits me better," said Fraser; "my father's an old man, and he wanted me home. I shall have a little steamer he's got an interest in as soon as her present skipper goes, so it's just as well for me to know these waters."

In this wise they sat talking until evening gave way to night, and the deck of the Foam was obscured in shadow. Lamps were lit on the wharves, and passing craft hung out their side-lights. The girl rose to her feet.

"I won't wait any longer; I must be going," she said.

"He may be back at any moment," urged the mate.

"No, I'd better go, thank you," replied the girl; "it's getting late. I don't like going home alone."

"I'll come with you, if you'll let me," said the mate, eagerly.

"All the way?" said Miss Tyrell, with the air of one bargaining.

"Of course," said Fraser.

"Well, I'll give him another half-hour, then," said the girl, calmly. "Shall we go down to the cabin? It's rather chilly up here now."

The mate showed her below, and, lighting the lamp, took a seat opposite and told her a few tales of the sea, culled when he was an apprentice, and credulous of ear. Miss Tyrell retaliated with some told her by her father, from which Fraser was able to form his own opinion of that estimable mariner. The last story was of a humourous nature, and the laughter which ensued grated oddly on the ear of the sturdy, good-looking seaman who had just come on board. He stopped at the companion for a moment listening in amazement, and then, hastily descending, entered the cabin.

"Poppy!" he cried. "Why, I've been waiting up at the Wheelers' for you for nearly a couple of hours."

"I must have missed you," said Miss Tyrell, serenely. "Annoying, isn't it?"

The master of the Foam said it was, and seemed from his manner to be anxious to do more justice to the subject than that.

"I didn't dream you'd come down here," he said, at length.

"No, you never invited me, so I came without," said the girl softly; "it's a dear little schooner, and I like it very much. I shall come often."

A slight shade passed over Captain Flower's face, but he said nothing.

"You must take me back now," said Miss Tyrell. "Good-bye, Mr. Fraser."

She held out her hand to the mate, and giving a friendly pressure, left the cabin, followed by Flower.

The mate let them get clear of the ship, and then, clambering on to the jetty, watched them off the wharf, and, plunging his hands into his pockets, whistled softly.

"Poppy Tyrell," he said to himself, slowly. "Poppy Tyrell! I wonder why the skipper has never mentioned her. I wonder why she took his arm. I wonder whether she knows that he's engaged to be married."

Deep in thought he paced slowly up and down the wharf, and then wandered listlessly round the piled-up empties and bags of sugar in the open floor beneath the warehouse. A glance through the windows of the office showed him the watchman slumbering peacefully by the light of a solitary gas-jet, and he went back to the schooner and gazed at the dark water and the dim shapes of the neighbouring craft in a vein of gentle melancholy. He walked to the place where her chair had been, and tried to conjure up the scene again; then, becoming uncertain as to the exact spot, went down to the cabin, where, the locker being immovable, no such difficulty presented itself. He gazed his fill, and then, smoking a meditative pipe, turned in and fell fast asleep.

He was awakened suddenly from a dream of rescuing a small shark surrounded by a horde of hungry Poppies, by the hurried and dramatic entrance of Captain Fred Flower. The captain's eyes were wild and his face harassed, and he unlocked the door of his state-room and stood with the handle of it in his hand before he paused to answer the question in the mate's sleepy eyes.

"It's all right, Jack," he said, breathlessly.

"I'm glad of that," said the mate, calmly.

"I hurried a bit," said the skipper.

"Anxious to see me again, I suppose," said the mate; "what are you listening for?"

"Thought I heard somebody in the water as I came aboard," said Flower glibly.

"What have you been up to?" enquired the other, quickly.

Captain Flower turned and regarded him with a look of offended dignity.

"Good heavens! don't look like that," said the mate, misreading it. "You haven't chucked anybody overboard, have you?"

"If anybody should happen to come aboard this vessel," said Flower, without deigning to reply to the question, "and ask questions about the master of it, he's as unlike me, Jack, as any two people in this world can be. D'ye understand?"

"You'd better tell me what you've been up to," urged the mate.

"As for your inquisitiveness, Jack, it don't become you," said Flower, with severity; "but I don't suppose it'll be necessary to trouble you at all."

He walked out of the cabin and stood listening at the foot of the companion-ladder, and the mate heard him walk a little way up. When he reentered the cabin his face had cleared, and he smiled comfortably.

"I shall just turn in for an hour," he said, amiably; "good-night, Jack."

"Good-night," said the curious mate. "I say——" he sat up suddenly in his bunk and looked seriously at the skipper.

"Well?" said the other.

"I suppose," said the mate, with a slight cough—"I suppose it's nothing about that girl that was down here?"

"Certainly not," said Flower, violently. He extinguished the lamp, and, entering his state-room, closed the door and locked it, and the mate, after lying a little while drowsily wondering what it all meant, fell asleep again.


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