A Master of Craft

by W. W. Jacobs

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The mate awoke next morning to a full sense of the unpleasant task before him, and, after irritably giving orders for the removal of the tarpaulin from the skylight, a substitution of the ingenious cook's for the drawn blinds ashore, sat down to a solitary breakfast and the composition of a telegram to Captain Barber. The first, a beautiful piece of prose, of which the key-note was resignation, contained two shillings' worth of sympathy and fourpence-halfpenny worth of religion. It was too expensive as it stood, and boiled down, he was surprised to find that it became unfeeling to the verge of flippancy. Ultimately he embodied it in a letter, which he preceded by a telegram, breaking the sad news in as gentle a form as could be managed for one-and-three.

The best part of the day was spent in relating the sad end of Captain Fred Flower to various enquirers. The deceased gentleman was a popular favourite, and clerks from the office and brother skippers came down in little knots to learn the full particulars, and to compare the accident with others in their experience. It reminded one skipper, who invariably took to drink when his feelings were touched, of the death of a little nephew from whooping-cough, and he was so moved over a picture he drew of the meeting of the two, that it took four men to get him off the schooner without violence.

The mate sat for some time after tea striving to summon up sufficient courage for his journey to Poplar, and wondering whether it wouldn't perhaps be better to communicate the news by letter. He even went so far as to get the writing materials ready, and then, remembering his promise to the skipper, put them away again and prepared for his visit. The crew who were on deck eyed him stolidly as he departed, and Joe made a remark to the cook, which that worthy drowned in a loud and troublesome cough.

The Wheeler family were at home when he arrived, and received him with some surprise, Mrs. Wheeler, who was in her usual place on the sofa, shook hands with him in a genteel fashion, and calling his attention to a somewhat loudly attired young man of unpleasant appearance, who was making a late tea, introduced him as her son Bob.

"Is Miss Tyrell in?" enquired Fraser, shaking his head as Mr. Wheeler dusted a small Wheeler off a chair and offered it to him.

"She's upstairs," said Emma Wheeler; "shall I go and fetch her?"

"No, I'll go up to her," said the mate quietly. "I think I'd better see her alone. I've got rather bad news for her."

"About the captain?" enquired Mrs. Wheeler, sharply.

"Yes," said Fraser, turning somewhat red. "Very bad news."

He fixed his eyes on the ground, and, in a spasmodic fashion, made perfect by practice, recited the disaster.

"Pore feller," said Mrs. Wheeler, when he had finished. "Pore feller, and cut down suddenly like that. I s'pose he 'adn't made any preparation for it?"

"Not a bit," said the mate, starting, "quite unprepared."

"You didn't jump over after him?" suggested Miss Wheeler, softly.

"I did not," said the mate, firmly; whereupon Miss Wheeler, who was fond of penny romance, sighed and shook her head.

"There's that pore gal upstairs," said Mrs. Wheeler, sorrowfully, "all innocent and happy, probably expecting him to come to-night and take her out. Emma'd better go up and break it to 'er."

"I will," said Fraser, shortly.

"Better to let a woman do it," said Mrs. Wheeler. "When our little Jemmy smashed his finger we sent Emma down to break it to his father and bring 'im 'ome. It was ever so long before she let you know the truth, wasn't it, father?"

"Made me think all sorts of things with her mysteries," said the dutiful Mr. Wheeler, in triumphant corroboration. "First of all she made me think you was dead; then I thought you was all dead—give me such a turn they 'ad to give me brandy to bring me round. When I found out it was only Jemmy's finger, I was nearly off my 'ed with joy."

"I'll go and tell her," interrupted Mr. Bob Wheeler, delicately, using the inside edge of the table-cloth as a serviette. "I can do it better than Emma can. What she wants is comforting; Emma would go and snivel all over her."

Mrs. Wheeler, raising her head from the sofa, regarded the speaker with looks of tender admiration, and the young man, after a lengthy glance in the small pier-glass ornamented with coloured paper, which stood on the mantel-piece, walked to the door.

"You needn't trouble," said Fraser, slowly; "I'm going to tell her."

Mrs. Wheeler's dull eyes snapped sharply. "She's our lodger," she said, aggressively.

"Yes, but I'm going to tell her," rejoined the mate; "the skipper told me to."

A startled silence was broken by Mr. Wheeler's chair, which fell noisily.

"I mean," stammered Fraser, meeting the perturbed gaze of the dock-foreman, "that he told me once if anything happened to him that I was to break the news to Miss Tyrell. It's been such a shock to me I hardly know what I am saying."

"Yes, you'll go and frighten her," said Bob Wheeler, endeavouring to push past him.

The mate blocked the doorway.

"Are you going to try to prevent me going out of a room in my own house?" blustered the young man.

"Of course not," said Fraser, and, giving way, ascended the stairs before him. Mr. Wheeler, junior, after a moment's hesitation, turned back and, muttering threats under his breath, returned to the parlour.

Miss Tyrell, who was sitting by the window reading, rose upon the mate's entrance, and, observing that he was alone, evinced a little surprise as she shook hands with him. It was the one thing necessary to complete his discomfiture, and he stood before her in a state of guilty confusion.

"Cap'n Flower couldn't come," he stammered.

The girl said nothing, but with her dark eyes fixed upon his flushed face waited for him to continue.

"It's his misfortune that he couldn't come," con-tinued Fraser, jerkily.

"Business, I suppose?" said the girl, after another wait. "Won't you sit down?"

"Bad business," replied Fraser. He sat down, and fancied he saw the way clear before him.

"You've left him on the Foam, I suppose?" said Poppy, seeing that she was expected to speak.

"No; farther back than that," was the response.

"Seabridge?" queried the girl, with an air of indifference.

Fraser regarded her with an expression of studied sadness. "Not so far back as that," he said, softly.

Miss Tyrell manifested a slight restlessness. "Is it a sort of riddle?" she demanded.

"No, it's a tale," replied Fraser, not without a secret admiration of his unsuspected powers of breaking bad news; "a tale with a bad ending."

The girl misunderstood him. "If you mean that Captain Flower doesn't want to come here, and sent you to say so—" she began, with dignity.

"He can't come," interrupted the mate, hastily.

"Did he send you to tell me?" she asked

Fraser shook his head mournfully. "He can't come," he said, in a low voice; "he had a bad foot—night before last he was standing on the ship's side—when he lost his hold—"

He broke off and eyed the girl nervously, "and fell overboard," he concluded.

Poppy Tyrell gave a faint cry and, springing to her feet, stood with her hand on the back of her chair regarding him. "Poor fellow," she said, softly—"poor fellow."

She sat down again by the open window and nervously plucked at the leaves of a geranium. Her face was white and her dark eyes pitiful and tender. Fraser, watching her, cursed his resourceful skipper and hated himself.

"It's a terrible thing for his friends," said Poppy, at length. "And for you," said Fraser, respectfully.

"I am very grieved," said Poppy, quietly; "very shocked and very grieved."

"I have got strong hopes that he may have got picked up," said Fraser, cheerfully; "very strong hopes, I threw him a life-belt, and though we got the boat out and pulled about, we couldn't find either of them. I shouldn't be at all surprised if he has been picked up by some vessel outward bound. Stranger things have happened."

The girl shook her head. "You didn't go overboard after him?" she asked, quietly.

"I did not," said the mate, who was somewhat tired of this tactless question; "I had to stand by the ship, and besides, he was a much better swimmer than I am—I did the best I could."

Miss Tyrell bowed her head in answer. "Yes," she said, softly.

"If there's anything I can do," said Fraser, awkwardly, "or be of use to you in any way, I hope you'll let me know—Flower told me you were all alone, and—"

He broke off suddenly as he saw the girl's lips quiver. "I was very fond of my father," she said, in extenuation of this weakness.

"I suppose you've got some relatives?" said Fraser.

The girl shook her head.

"No cousins?" said Fraser, staring. He had twenty-three himself.

"I have some in New Zealand," said Poppy, considering. "If I could, I think I should go out there."

"And give up your business here?" enquired the mate, anxiously.

"It gave me up," said Poppy, with a little tremulous laugh. "I had a week's pay instead of notice the day before yesterday. If you know anybody who wants a clerk who spells 'impatient' with a 'y' and is off-hand when they are told of it, you might let me know."

The mate stared at her blankly. This was a far more serious case than Captain Flower's. "What are you going to do?" he asked.

"Try for another berth," was the reply.

"But if you don't get it?"

"I shall get it sooner or later," said the girl.

"But suppose you don't get one for a long time?" suggested Fraser.

"I must wait till I do," said the girl, quietly.

"You see," continued the mate, twisting his hands, "it might be a long job, and I—I was wondering—what you would do in the meantime. I was wondering whether you could hold out."

"Hold out?" repeated Miss Tyrell, very coldly.

"Whether you've got enough money," blurted the mate.

Miss Tyrell turned upon him a face in which there was now no lack of colour. "That is my business," she said, stiffly.

"Mine, too," said Fraser, gazing steadily at the pretty picture of indignation before him. "I was Flower's friend as well as his mate, and you are only a girl." The indignation became impatience. "Little more than a child," he murmured, scrutinising her.

"I am quite big enough to mind my own business," said Poppy, reverting to chilly politeness.

"I wish you would promise me you won't leave here or do anything until I have seen you again,'' said Fraser, who was anxious to consult his captain on this new phase of affairs.

"Certainly not," said Miss Tyrell, rising and standing by her chair, "and thank you for calling."

Fraser rubbed his chin helplessly.

"Thank you for calling," repeated the girl, still standing.

"That is telling me to go, I suppose?" said, Fraser, looking at her frankly. "I wish I knew how to talk to you. When I think of you being here all alone, without friends and without employment, it seems wrong for me to go and leave you here."

Miss Tyrell gave a faint gasp and glanced anxiously at the door. Fraser hesitated a moment, and then rose to his feet.

"If I hear anything more, may I come and tell you?" he asked.

"Yes," said Poppy, "or write; perhaps it would be better to write; I might not be at home. Goodbye."

The mate shook hands, and, blundering down the stairs, shouted good-night to a segment of the Wheeler family visible through the half-open door, and passed out into the street. He walked for some time rapidly, gradually slowing down as he collected his thoughts.

"Flower's a fool," he said, bitterly; "and, as for me, I don't know what I am. It's so long since I told the truth I forget what it's like, and I'd sooner tell lies in a church than tell them to her."


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