A Master of Craft

by W. W. Jacobs

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WHILE the skipper and mate slumbered peacefully below, the watchman sat on a post at the extreme end of the jetty, yearning for human society and gazing fearfully behind him at the silent, dimly-lit wharf. The two gas-lamps high up on the walls gave but a faint light, and in no way dispelled the deep shadows thrown by the cranes and the piled-up empties which littered the place. He gazed intently at the dark opening of the floor beneath the warehouse, half fancying that he could again discern the veiled apparition which had looked in at him through the office window, and had finally vanished before his horror-struck eyes in a corner the only outlet to which was a grating. Albeit a careful man and tender, the watchman pinched himself. He was awake, and, rubbing the injured part, swore softly.

"If I go down and tell 'em," he murmured softly, in allusion to the crew, "what'll they do? Laugh at me."

He glanced behind him again, and, rising hastily to his feet, nearly fell on to the deck below as a dark figure appeared for a moment at the opening and then vanished again. With more alacrity than might have been expected of a man of his figure, he dropped into the rigging and lowered himself on to the schooner.

The scuttle was open, and the seamen's lusty snores fell upon his ears like sweet music. He backed down the ladder, and groped in the darkness towards the bunks with outstretched hand. One snore stopped instantly.

"Eh!" said a sleepy voice. "Wot! 'Ere, what the blazes are you up to?"

"A' right, Joe," said the watchman, cheerfully.

"But it ain't all right," said the seaman, sharply, "comin' down in the dark an' ketchin' 'old o' people's noses. Give me quite a start, you did."

"It's nothing to the start I've 'ad," said the other, pathetically; "there's a ghost on the wharf, Joe. I want you to come up with me and see what it is.

"Yes, I'm sure to do that," said Joe, turning over in his bunk till it creaked with his weight. "Go away, and let me get to sleep again. I don't get a night's rest like you do, you know."

"What's the matter?" enquired a sleepy voice.

"Old George 'ere ses there's a ghost on the wharf," said Joe.

"I've seen it three times," said the watchman, eager for sympathy.

"I expect it's a death-warning for you, George," said the voice, solemnly. "The last watchman died sudden, you remember."

"So he did," said Joe.

"His 'art was wrong," said George, curtly; "'ad been for years."

"Well, we can't do nothin' for you, George," said Joe, kindly; "it's no good us going up. We sha'n't see it. It isn't meant for us."

"'Ow d'yer know it's a ghost," said a third voice, impatiently; "very likely while you're all jawing about it down 'ere it's a-burglin' the offis."

Joe gave a startled grunt, and, rolling out of his bunk, grabbed his trousers, and began to dress. Three other shadowy forms followed suit, and, hastily dressing, followed the watchman on deck and gained the wharf. They went through the gloomy ground floor in a body, yawning sleepily.

"I shouldn't like to be a watchman," said a young ordinary seaman named Tim, with a shiver; "a ghost might easy do anything with you while you was all alone. P'r'aps it walks up an' down behind you, George, makin' faces. We shall be gorn in another hour, George."

The office, when they reached it, was undisturbed, and, staying only long enough to drink the watchman's coffee, which was heating on a gas-jet, they left it and began to search the wharf, Joe leading with a small lantern.

"Are we all 'ere?" demanded Tim, suddenly.

"I am," said the cook, emphatically.

"'Cos I see su'thing right behind them bags o' sugar," said the youth, clutching hold of the cook on one side and the watchman on the other. "Spread out a bit, chaps."

Joe dashed boldly round with the lantern. There was a faint scream and an exclamation of triumph from the seaman. "I've got it!" he shouted.

The others followed hastily, and saw the fearless Joe firmly gripping the apparition. At the sight the cook furtively combed his hair with his fingers, while Tim modestly buttoned up his jacket.

"Take this lantern, so's I can hold her better," said Joe, extending it.

The cook took it from him, and holding it up, revealed the face of a tall, good-looking woman of some seven or eight and twenty.

"What are you doin' here?" demanded the watchman, with official austerity.

"I'm waiting for a friend of mine," said the visitor, struggling with Joe. "Make this man leave go of me, please."

"Joe," said the watchman, with severity. "I'm ashamed of you. Who is your friend, miss?"

"His name is Robinson," said the lady. "He came on here about an hour ago. I'm waiting for him."

"There's nobody here," said the watchman, shaking his head.

"I'm not sure he didn't go on that little ship," said the lady; "but if he has, I suppose I can wait here till he comes off. I'm not doing any harm."

"The ship'll sail in about an hour's time, miss," said Tim, regretfully, "but there ain't nobody o' the name of Robinson aboard her. All the crew's 'ere, and there's only the skipper and mate on her besides."

"You can't deceive me, young man, so don't try it," said the lady, sharply. "I followed him on here, and he hasn't gone off, because the gate has been locked since."

"I can't think who the lady means," said Joe.

"I ain't seen nobody come aboard. If he did, he's down the cabin."

"Well, I'll go down there," said the lady, promptly.

"Well, miss, it's nothing to do with us," said Joe, "but it's my opinion you'll find the skipper and mate has turned in."

"Well, I'm going down," said the lady, gripping her parasol firmly by the middle; "they can't eat me."

She walked towards the Foam, followed by the perplexed crew, and with the able assistance of five pairs of hands reached the deck. The companion was open, and at Joe's whispered instructions she turned and descended the steps backwards.

It was at first quite dark in the cabin, but as the visitor's eyes became accustomed to it, she could just discern the outlines of a small table, while a steady breathing assured her that somebody was sleeping close by. Feeling her way to the table she discovered, a locker, and, taking a seat, coughed gently. The breathing continuing quite undisturbed, she coughed again, twice.

The breathing stopped suddenly. "Who the devil's that coughing?" asked a surprised voice.

"I beg pardon, I'm sure," said the visitor, "but is there a Mr. Robinson down here?"

The reply was so faint and smothered that she could not hear it. It was evident that the speaker, a modest man, was now speaking from beneath the bedclothes.

"Is Mr. Robinson here?" she repeated loudly.

"Never heard of him," said the smothered voice.

"It's my opinion," said the visitor, hotly, "that you're trying to deceive me. Have you got a match?"

The owner of the voice said that he had not, and with chilly propriety added that he wouldn't give it to her if he had. Whereupon the lady rose, and, fumbling on the little mantel-piece, found a box and struck one. There was a lamp nailed to the bulkhead over the mantel-piece, and calmly removing the chimney, she lit it.

A red, excited face, with the bedclothes fast about its neck, appeared in a small bunk and stared at her in speechless amaze. The visitor returned his gaze calmly, and then looked carefully round the cabin.

"Where does that lead to?" she asked, pointing to the door of the state-room.

The mate, remembering in time the mysterious behaviour of Flower, considered the situation. "That's the pantry," he said, untruthfully.

The visitor rose and tried the handle. The door was locked, and she looked doubtfully at the mate. "I suppose that's a leg of mutton I can hear asleep in there," she said, with acerbity.

"You can suppose what you like," said the mate, testily; "why don't you go away? I'm surprised at you."

"You'll be more surprised before I've done with you," said the lady, with emotion. "My Fred's in there, and you know it."

"Your Fred!" said Fraser, in great surprise.

"Mr. Robinson," said the visitor, correcting herself.

"I tell you there's nobody in there except the skipper," said the mate.

"You said it was the pantry just now," exclaimed the other, sharply.

"The skipper sleeps in the pantry so's he can keep his eye on the meat," explained Fraser.

The visitor looked at him angrily. "What sort of a man is he?" she enquired, suddenly.

"You'll soon know if he comes out," said the mate. "He's the worst-tempered man afloat, I should think. If he comes out and finds you here, I don't know what he'll do."

"I'm not afraid of him," said the other, with spirit. "What do you call him? Skipper?"

The mate nodded, and the visitor tapped loudly at the door. "Skipper!" she cried, "Skipper!"

No answer being vouchsafed, she repeated her cry in a voice louder than before.

"He's a heavy sleeper," said the perturbed Fraser; "better go away, there's a good girl."

The lady, scornfully ignoring him, rapped on the door and again called upon its occupant. Then, despite her assurance, she sprang back with a scream as a reply burst through the door with the suddenness and fury of a thunder-clap.

"Halloa!" it said.

"My goodness," said the visitor, aghast. "What a voice! What a terrible voice!"

She recovered herself and again approached the door.

"Is there a gentleman named Robinson in there?" she asked, timidly.

"Gentleman named who?" came the thunderclap again.

"Robinson," said the lady, faintly.

"No! No!" said the thunder-clap. Then—"Go away," it rumbled. "Go away."

The reverberation of that mighty voice rolled and shook through the cabin. It even affected the mate, for the visitor, glancing towards him, saw that he had nervously concealed himself beneath the bedclothes, and was shaking with fright.

"I daresay his bark is worse than his bite," said the visitor, trembling; "anyway, I'm going to stay here. I saw Mr. Robinson come here, and I believe he's got him in there. Killing him, perhaps. Oh! Oh!"

To the mate's consternation she began to laugh, and then changed to a piercing scream, and, unused to the sex as he was, he realised that this was the much-dreaded hysteria of which he had often heard, and he faced her with a face as pallid as her own.

"Chuck some water over yourself," he said, hastily, nodding at a jug which stood on the table. "I can't very well get up to do it myself."

The lady ignored this advice, and by dint of much strength of mind regained her self-control. She sat down on the locker again, and folding her arms showed clearly her intention to remain.

Half an hour passed; the visitor still sat grimly upright. Twice she sniffed slightly, and, with a delicate handkerchief, pushed up her veil and wiped away the faint beginnings of a tear.

"I suppose you think I'm acting strangely?" she said, catching the mate's eye after one of these episodes.

"Oh, don't mind me," said the mate, with studied politeness; "don't mind hurting my feelings or taking my character away."

"Pooh! you're a man," said the visitor, scornfully; "but character or no character, I'm going to see into that room before I go away, if I sit here for three weeks."

"How're you going to manage about eating and drinking all that time?" enquired Fraser.

"How are you?" said the visitor; "you can't get up while I'm here, you know."

"Well, we'll see," said the mate, vaguely.

"I'm sure I don't want to annoy anybody," said the visitor, softly, "but I've had a lot of trouble, young man, and what's worse, I've been made a fool of. This day three weeks ago I ought to have been married."

"I'm sure you ought," murmured the other.

The lady ignored the interruption.

"Travelling under Government on secret service, he said he was," she continued; "always away: here to-day, China to-morrow, and America the day after."

"Flying?" queried the interested mate.

"I daresay," snapped the visitor; "anything to tell me, I suppose. We were to be married by special license. I'd even got my trousseau ready."

"Got your what ready?" enquired the mate, to whom the word was new, leaning out of his bunk.

"Everything to wear," explained the visitor. "All my relations bought new clothes, too; leastways, those that could afford it did. He even went and helped me choose the cake."

"Well, is that wrong?" asked the puzzled mate.

"He didn't buy it, he only chose it," said the other, having recourse to her handkerchief again. "He went outside the shop to see whether there was one he would like better, and when I came out he had disappeared."

"He must have met with an accident," said the mate, politely.

"I saw him to-night," said the lady, tersely.

"Once or twice he had mentioned Wapping in conversation, and then seemed to check himself. That was my clue. I've been round this dismal heathenish place for a fortnight. To-night I saw him; he came on this wharf, and he has not gone off.... It's my belief he's in that room."

Before the mate could reply the hoarse voice of the watchman came down the company-way. "Ha' past eleven, sir; tide's just on the turn."

"Aye, aye," said the mate. He turned imploringly to the visitor.

"Would you do me the favour just to step on deck a minute?"

"What for?" enquired the visitor, shortly.

"Because I want to get up," said the mate.

"I sha'n't move," said the lady.

"But I've got to get up, I tell you," said the mate; "we're getting under way in ten minutes."

"And what might that be?" asked the lady.

"Why, we make a start. You'd better go ashore unless you want to be carried off."

"I sha'n't move," repeated the visitor.

"Well, I'm sorry to be rude," said the mate. "George."

"Sir," said the watchman from above.

"Bring down a couple o' men and take this lady ashore," said the mate sternly.

"I'll send a couple down, sir," said the watchman, and moved off to make a selection.

"I shall scream 'murder and thieves,'" said the lady, her eyes gleaming. "I'll bring the police up and cause a scandal. Then perhaps I shall see into that room."

In the face of determination like this the mate's courage gave way, and in a voice of much anxiety he called upon his captain for instruction.

"Cast off," bellowed the mighty voice. "If your sweetheart won't go ashore she must come, too. You must pay her passage."

"Well, of all the damned impudence," muttered the incensed mate. "Well, if you're bent on coming," he said, hotly, to the visitor, "just go on deck while I dress."

The lady hesitated a moment and then withdrew. On deck the men eyed her curiously, but made no attempt to interfere with her, and in a couple of minutes the mate came running up to take charge.

"Where are we going?" enquired the lady with a trace of anxiety in her voice.

"France," said Fraser, turning away.

The visitor looked nervously round. At the adjoining wharf a sailing barge was also getting under way, and a large steamer was slowly turning in the middle of the river. She took a pace or two towards the side.

"Cast off," said Fraser, impatiently, to the watchman.

"Wait a minute," said the visitor, hastily, "I want to think."

"Cast off," repeated the mate.

The watchman obeyed, and the schooner's side moved slowly from the wharf. At the sight the visitor's nerve forsook her, and with a frantic cry she ran to the side and, catching the watchman's outstretched hand, sprang ashore.

"Good-bye," sang out the mate; "sorry you wouldn't come to France with us. The lady was afraid of the foreigners, George. If it had been England she wouldn't have minded."

"Aye, aye," said the watchman, significantly, and, as the schooner showed her stern, turned to answer, with such lies as he thought the occasion demanded, the eager questions of his fair companion.


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