A Master of Craft

by W. W. Jacobs

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At No. 5 Liston Street, Poppy Tyrell sat at the open window of her room reading The outside air was pleasant, despite the fact that Poplar is a somewhat crowded neighbourhood, and it was rendered more pleasant by comparison with the atmosphere inside, which, from a warm, soft smell not to be described by comparison, suggested washing. In the stone-paved yard beneath the window, a small daughter of the house hung out garments of various hues and shapes, while inside, in the scullery, the master of the house was doing the family washing with all the secrecy and trepidation of one engaged in an unlawful task. The Wheeler family was a large one, and the wash heavy, and besides misadventures to one or two garments, sorted out for further consideration, the small girl was severely critical about the colour, averring sharply that she was almost ashamed to put them on the line.

"They'll dry clean," said her father, wiping his brow with the upper part of his arm, the only part which was dry; "and if they don't we must tell your mother that the line came down. I'll show these to her now."

He took up the wet clothes and, cautiously leaving the scullery, crossed the passage to the parlour, where Mrs. Wheeler, a confirmed invalid, was lying on a ramshackle sofa, darning socks. Mr. Wheeler coughed to attract her attention, and with an apologetic expression of visage held up a small, pink garment of the knickerbocker species, and prepared for the worst.

"They've never shrunk like that?" said Mrs. Wheeler, starting up.

"They have," said her husband, "all by itself," he added, in hasty self-defence.

"You've had it in the soda," said Mrs. Wheeler, disregarding.

"I've not," said Mr. Wheeler, vehemently. "I've got the two tubs there, flannels in one without soda, the other things in the other with soda. It's bad stuff, that's what it is. I thought I'd show you."

"It's management they want," said Mrs. Wheeler, wearily; "it's the touch you have to give 'em. I can't explain, but I know they wouldn't have gone like that if I'd done 'em. What's that you're hiding behind you?"

Thus attacked, Mr. Wheeler produced his other hand, and shaking out a blue and white shirt, showed how the blue had been wandering over the white territory, and how the white had apparently accepted a permanent occupation.

"What do you say to that?" he enquired, desperately.

"You'd better ask Bob what he says," said his wife, aghast; "you know how pertickler he is, too. I told you as plain as a woman could speak, not to boil that shirt."

"Well, it can't be helped," said Mr. Wheeler, with a philosophy he hoped his son would imitate. "I wasn't brought up to the washing, Polly."

"It's a sin to spoil good things like that," said Mrs. Wheeler, fretfully. "Bob's quite the gentleman—he will buy such expensive shirts. Take it away, I can't bear to look at it."

Mr. Wheeler, considerably crestfallen, was about to obey, when he was startled by a knock at the door.

"That's Captain Flower, I expect," said his wife, hastily; "he's going to take Poppy and Emma to a theatre to-night. Don't let him see you in that state, Peter."

But Mr. Wheeler was already fumbling at the strings of his apron, and, despairing of undoing it, broke the string, and pitched it with the other clothes under the sofa and hastily donned his coat.

"Good-evening," said Flower, as Mr. Wheeler opened the door; "this is my mate."

"Glad to see you, sir," said Mr. Wheeler.

The mate made his acknowledgments, and having shaken hands, carefully wiped his down the leg of his trousers.

"Moist hand you've got, Wheeler," said Flower, who had been doing the same thing.

"Got some dye on 'em at the docks," said Wheeler, glibly. "I've 'ad 'em in soak."

Flower nodded, and after a brief exchange of courtesies with Mrs. Wheeler as he passed the door, led the way up the narrow staircase to Miss Tyrell's room.

"I've brought him with me, so that he'll be company for Emma Wheeler," said the skipper, as Fraser shook hands with her, "and you must look sharp if you want to get good seats.

"I'm ready all but my hat and jacket," said Poppy, "and Emma's in her room getting ready, too. All the children are up there helping her."

Fraser opened his eyes at such a toilet, and began secretly to wish that he had paid more attention to his own.

"I hope you're not shy?" said Miss Tyrell, who found his steadfast gaze somewhat embarrassing.

Fraser shook his head. "No, I'm not shy," he said, quietly.

"Because Emma didn't know you were coming," continued Miss Tyrell, "and she's always shy. So you must be bold, you know."

The mate nodded as confidently as he could. "Shyness has never been one of my failings," he said, nervously.

Further conversation was rendered difficult, if not impossible, by one which now took place outside. It was conducted between a small Wheeler on the top of the stairs and Mrs. Wheeler in the parlour below. The subject was hairpins, an article in which it appeared Miss Wheeler was lamentably deficient, owing, it was suggested, to a weakness of Mrs. Wheeler's for picking up stray ones and putting them in her hair. The conversation ended in Mrs. Wheeler, whose thin voice was heard hotly combating these charges, parting with six, without prejudice; and a few minutes later Miss Wheeler, somewhat flushed, entered the room and was introduced to the mate.

"All ready?" enquired Flower, as Miss Tyrell drew on her gloves.

They went downstairs in single file, the builder of the house having left no option in the matter, while the small Wheelers, breathing hard with excitement, watched them over the balusters. Outside the house the two ladies paired off, leaving the two men to follow behind.

The mate noticed, with a strong sense of his own unworthiness, that the two ladies seemed thoroughly engrossed in each other's company, and oblivious to all else. A suggestion from Flower that he should close up and take off Miss Wheeler, seemed to him to border upon audacity, but he meekly followed Flower as that bold mariner ranged himself alongside the girls, and taking two steps on the curb and three in the gutter, walked along for some time trying to think of something to say.

"There ain't room for four abreast," said Flower, who had been scraping against the wall. "We'd better split up into twos."

At the suggestion the ladies drifted apart, and Flower, taking Miss Tyrell's arm, left the mate behind with Miss Wheeler, nervously wondering whether he ought to do the same.

"I hope it won't rain," he said, at last.

"I hope not," said Miss Wheeler, glancing up at a sky which was absolutely cloudless.

"So bad for ladies' dresses," continued the mate.

"What is?" enquired Miss Wheeler, who had covered some distance since the last remark.

"Rain," said the mate, quite freshly. "I don't think we shall have any, though."

Miss Wheeler whose life had been passed in a neighbourhood in which there was only one explanation for such conduct, concluded that he had been drinking, and, closing her lips tightly, said no more until they reached the theatre.

"Oh, they're going in," she said, quickly; "we shall get a bad seat."

"Hurry up," cried Flower, beckoning.

"I'll pay," whispered the mate.

"No, I will," said Flower. "Well, you pay for one and I'll pay for one, then."

He pushed his way to the window and bought a couple of pit-stalls; the mate, who had not consulted him, bought upper-circles, and, with a glance at the ladies, pushed open the swing-doors.

"Come on," he said, excitedly; and seeing several people racing up the broad stone stairs, he and Miss Tyrell raced with them.

"Round this side," he cried, hastily, as he gave up the tickets, and, followed by Miss Tyrell, quickly secured a couple of seats at the end of the front row.

"Best seats in the house almost," said Poppy, cheerfully.

"Where are the others?" said Fraser, looking round.

"Coming on behind, I suppose," said Poppy glancing over her shoulder.

"I'll change places when they arrive," said the other, apologetically; "something's detained them, I should think. I hope they're not waiting for us."

He stood looking about him uneasily as the seats behind rapidly filled, and closely scanned their occupants, and then, leaving his hat on the seat, walked back in perplexity to the door.

"Never mind," said Miss Tyrell, quietly, as he came back. "I daresay they'll find us."

Fraser bought a programme and sat down, the brim of Miss Tyrell's hat touching his face as she bent to peruse it. With her small gloved finger she pointed out the leading characters, and taking no notice of his restlessness, began to chat gaily about the plays she had seen, until a tuning of violins from the orchestra caused her to lean forward, her lips parted and her eyes beaming with anticipation.

"I do hope the others have got good seats," she said, softly, as the overture finished; "that's everything, isn't it?"

"I hope so," said Fraser.

He leaned forward, excitedly. Not because the curtain was rising, but because he had just caught sight of a figure standing up in the centre of the pit-stalls. He had just time to call his companion's attention to it when the figure, in deference to the threats and entreaties of the people behind, sat down and was lost in the crowd.

"They have got good seats," said Miss Tyrell. "I'm so glad. What a beautiful scene."

The mate, stifling his misgivings, gave himself up to the enjoyment of the situation, which in-eluded answering the breathless whispers of his neighbour when she missed a sentence, and helping her to discover the identity of the characters from the programme as they appeared.

"I should like it all over again," said Miss Tyrell, sitting back in her seat, as the curtain fell on the first act.

Fraser agreed with her. He was closely watching the pit-stalls. In the general movement on the part of the audience which followed the lowering of the curtain, the master of the Foam was the first on his feet.

"I'll go down and send him up," said Fraser, rising.

Miss Tyrell demurred, and revealed an unsuspected timidity of character. "I don't like being left here all alone," she remarked. "Wait till they see us."

She spoke in the plural, for Miss Wheeler, who found the skipper exceedingly bad company, had also risen, and was scrutinising the house with a gaze hardly less eager than his own. A suggestion of the mate that he should wave his handkerchief was promptly negatived by Miss Tyrell, on the ground that it would not be the correct thing to do in the upper-circle, and they were still undiscovered when the curtain went up for the second act, and strong and willing hands from behind thrust the skipper back into his seat.

"I expect you'll catch it," said Miss Tyrell, softly, as the performance came to an end; "we'd better go down and wait for them outside. I never enjoyed a piece so much."

The mate rose and mingled with the crowd, conscious of a little occasional clutch at his sleeve whenever other people threatened to come between them. Outside the crowd dispersed slowly, and it was some minutes before they discovered a small but compact knot of two waiting for them.

"Where the—" began Flower.

"I hope you enjoyed the performance, Captain Flower," said Miss Tyrell, drawing herself up with some dignity. "I didn't know that I was supposed to look out for myself all the evening. If it hadn't been for Mr. Fraser I should have been all alone."

She looked hard at Miss Wheeler as she spoke, and the couple from the pit-stalls reddened with indignation at being so misunderstood.

"I'm sure I didn't want him," said Miss Wheeler, hastily. "Two or three times I thought there would have been a fight with the people behind."

"Oh, it doesn't matter," said Miss Tyrell, composedly. "Well, it's no good standing here. We'd better get home."

She walked off with the mate, leaving the couple behind, who realised that appearances were against them, to follow at their leisure. Conversation was mostly on her side, the mate being too much occupied with his defence to make any very long or very coherent replies.

They reached Liston Street at last, and separated at the door, Miss Tyrell shaking hands with the skipper in a way which conveyed in the fullest possible manner her opinion of his behaviour that evening. A bright smile and a genial hand-shake were reserved for the mate.

"And now," said the incensed skipper, breathing deeply as the door closed and they walked up Liston Street, "what the deuce do you mean by it?"

"Mean by what?" demanded the mate, who, after much thought, had decided to take a leaf out of Miss Tyrell's book.

"Mean by leaving me in another part of the house with that Wheeler girl while you and my intended went off together?" growled Flower ferociously.

"Well, I could only think you wanted it," said Fraser, in a firm voice.

"What?" demanded the other, hardly able to believe his ears

"I thought you wanted Miss Wheeler for number four," said the mate, calmly. "You know what a chap you are, cap'n."

His companion stopped and regarded him in speechless amaze, then realising a vocabulary to which Miss Wheeler had acted as a safety-valve all the evening, he turned up a side street and stamped his way back to the Foam alone.


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