A Master of Craft

by W. W. Jacobs

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As a result of the mate's ill-behaviour at the theatre, Captain Fred Flower treated him with an air of chilly disdain, ignoring, as far as circumstances would permit, the fact that such a person existed. So far as the social side went the mate made no demur, but it was a different matter when the skipper acted as though he were not present at the breakfast table, and being chary of interfering with the other's self-imposed vow of silence, he rescued a couple of rashers from his plate and put them on his own. Also, in order to put matters on a more equal footing, he drank three cups of coffee in rapid succession, leaving the skipper to his own reflections and an empty coffee-pot. In this sociable fashion they got through most of the day, the skipper refraining from speech until late in the afternoon, when, both being at work in the hold, the mate let a heavy case fall on his foot.

"I thought you'd get it," he said, calmly, as Flower paused to take breath; "it wasn't my fault."

"Whose was it, then?" roared Flower, who had got his boot off and was trying various tender experiments with his toe to see whether it was broken or not.

"If you hadn't been holding your head in the air and pretending that I wasn't here, it wouldn't have happened," said Fraser, with some heat.

The skipper turned his back on him, and meeting a look of enquiring solicitude from Joe, applied to him for advice.

"What had I better do with it?" he asked.

"Well, if it was my toe, sir," said Joe regarding it respectfully, "I should stick it in a basin o' boiling water and keep it there as long as I could bear it."

"You're a fool," said the skipper, briefly. "What do you think of it, Ben? I don't think it's broken."

The old seaman scratched his head. "Well, if it belonged to me," he said, slowly, "there's some ointment down the fo'c's'le which the cook 'ad for sore eyes. I should just put some o' that on. It looks good stuff."

The skipper, summarising the chief points in Ben's character, which, owing principally to the poverty of the English language, bore a remarkable likeness to Joe's and the mate's, took his sock and boot in his hand, and gaining the deck limped painfully to the cabin.

The foot was so painful after tea that he could hardly bear his slipper on, and he went ashore in his working clothes to the chemist's, preparatory to fitting himself out for Liston Street. The chemist, leaning over the counter, was inclined to take a serious view of it, and shaking his head with much solemnity, prepared a bottle of medicine, a bottle of lotion and a box of ointment.

"Let me see it again as soon as you've finished the medicine," he said, as he handed the articles over the counter.

Flower promised, and hobbling towards the door turned into the street. Then the amiable air which he had worn in the shop gave way to one of unseemly hauteur as he saw Fraser hurrying towards him.

"Look out," cried the latter, warningly.

The skipper favoured him with a baleful stare.

"All right," said the mate, angrily, "go your own way, then. Don't come to me when you get into trouble, that's all."

Flower passed on his way in silence. Then a thought struck him and he stopped suddenly.

"You wish to speak to me?" he asked, stiffly.

"No, I'm damned if I do," said the mate, sticking his hands into his pockets.

"If you wish to speak to me," said the other, trying in vain to conceal a trace of anxiety in his voice, "it's my duty to listen. What were you going to say just now?"

The mate eyed him wrathfully, but as the pathetic figure with its wounded toe and cargo of remedies stood there waiting for him to speak, he suddenly softened.

"Don't go back, old man," he said, kindly, "she's aboard."

Eighteen pennyworth of mixture, to be taken thrice daily from tablespoons, spilled over the curb, and the skipper, thrusting the other packets mechanically into his pockets, disappeared hurriedly around the corner.

"It's no use finding fault with me," said Fraser, quickly, as he stepped along beside him, "so don't try it. They came down into the cabin before I knew they were aboard, even."

"They?" repeated the distressed Flower. "Who's they?"

"The young woman that came before and a stout woman with a little dark moustache and earrings. They're going to wait until you come back to ask you a few questions about Mr. Robinson. They've been asking me a few. I've locked the door of your state-room and here's the key."

Flower pocketed it and, after a little deliberation thanked him.

"I did the best I could for you," said the other, with a touch of severity. "If I'd treated you as some men would have done, I should have just let you walk straight into the trap."

Flower gave an apologetic cough. "I've had a lot of worry lately, Jack," he said, humbly; "come in and have something. Perhaps it will clear my head a bit."

"I told 'em you wouldn't be back till twelve at least," said the mate, as Flower rapidly diagnosed his complaint and ordered whisky, "perhaps not then, and that when you did turn up you'd sure to be the worse for liquor. The old lady said she'd wait all night for the pleasure of seeing your bonny face, and as for you being drunk, she said she don't suppose there's a woman in London that has had more experience with drunken men than she has."

"Let this be a warning to you, Jack," said the skipper, solemnly, as he drained his glass and put it thoughtfully on the counter.

"Don't you trouble about me," said Fraser; "you've got all you can do to look after yourself. I've come out to look for a policeman; at least, that's what I told them."

"All the police in the world couldn't do me any good," sighed Flower. "Poppy's got tickets for a concert to-night, and I was going with her. I can't go like this."

"Well, what are you going to do?" enquired the other.

Flower shook his head and pondered. "You go back and get rid of them the best way you can," he said, at length, "but whatever you do, don't have a scene. I'll stay here till you come and tell me the coast is clear."

"And suppose it don't clear?" said Fraser.

"Then I'll pick you up at Greenwich in the morning," said Flower.

"And suppose they're still aboard?" said Fraser.

"I won't suppose any such thing," said the other, hotly; "if you can't get rid of two women between now and three in the morning, you're not much of a mate. If they catch me I'm ruined, and you'll be responsible for it."

The mate, staring at him blankly, opened his mouth to reply, but being utterly unable to think of anything adequate to the occasion, took up his glass instead, and, drinking off the contents, turned to the door. He stood for a moment at the threshold gazing at Flower as though he had just discovered points about him which had hitherto escaped his notice, and then made his way back to the wharf.

"They're still down below, sir," said Joe, softly, as he stepped aboard, "and making as free and as comfortable as though they're going to stay a month."

Fraser shrugged his shoulders and went below. The appearance of the ladies amply confirmed Joe's remark.

"Never can find one when you want him, can you?" said the elder lady, in playful allusion to the police.

"Well, I altered my mind," said Fraser, amiably, "I don't like treating ladies roughly, but if the cap'n comes on board and finds you here it'll be bad for me, that's all."

"What time do you expect him?" enquired Miss Tipping.

"Not before we sail at three in the morning." said the mate, glibly; "perhaps not then. I often have to take the ship out without him. He's been away six weeks at a stretch before now."

"Well, we'll stay here till he does come," said the elder lady. "I'll have his cabin, and my step-daughter'll have to put up with your bed."

"If you're not gone by the time we start, I shall have to have you put off," said Fraser.

"Those of us who live longest'll see the most," said Mrs. Tipping, calmly.

An hour or two passed, the mate sitting smoking with a philosophy which he hoped the waiting mariner at the "Admiral Cochrane" would be able to imitate. He lit the lamp at last, and going on deck, ordered the cook to prepare supper.

Mother and daughter, with feelings of gratitude, against which they fought strongly, noticed that the table was laid for three, and a little later, in a somewhat awkward fashion, they all sat down to the meal together.

"Very good beef," said Mrs. Tipping, politely.

"Very nice," said her daughter, who was ex-changing glances with the mate. "I suppose you're very comfortable here, Mr. Fraser?"

The mate sighed. "It's all right when the old man's away," he said, deceitfully. "He's got a dreadful temper."

"I hope you didn't get into trouble through my coming aboard the other night," said Miss Tipping, softly.

"Don't say anything about it," replied the mate, eyeing her admiringly. "I'd do more than that for you, if I could."

Miss Tipping, catching her mother's eye, bestowed upon her a glance of complacent triumph.

"You don't mind us coming down here, do you?" she said, languishingly.

"I wish you'd live here," said the unscrupulous Fraser; "but of course I know you only come here to try and see that fellow Robinson," he added, gloomily.

"I like to see you, too," was the reply. "I like you very much, as a friend."

The mate in a melancholy voice thanked her, and to the great annoyance of the cook, who had received strict orders from the forecastle to listen as much as he could, sat in silence while the table was cleared.

"What do you say to a hand at cards?" he said, after the cook had finally left the cabin.

"Three-handed cribbage," said Mrs. Tipping, quickly; "it's the only game worth playing."

No objection being raised, the masterful lady drew closer to the table, and concentrating energies of no mean order on the game, successfully played hands of unvarying goodness, aided by a method of pegging which might perhaps be best described as dot and carry one.

"You haven't seen anything of this Mr. Robinson since you were here last, I suppose?" said Fraser, noting with satisfaction that both ladies gave occasional uneasy glances at the clock.

"No, an' not likely to," said Mrs. Tipping; "fifteen two, fifteen four, fifteen six, and a pair's eight."

"Where's the fifteen six?" enquired Fraser, glancing oven

"Eight and seven," said the lady, pitching the cards with the others and beginning to shuffle for the next deal.

"It's very strange behaviour," said the mate; "Robinson, I mean. Do you think he's dead?"

"No, I don't," said Mrs. Tipping, briefly. "Where's that captain of yours?"

Fraser, whose anxiety was becoming too much for his play, leaned over the table as though about to speak, and then, apparently thinking better of it, went on with the game.

"Eh?" said Mrs. Tipping, putting her cards face downwards on the table and catching his eye. "Where?"

"O, nowhere," said Fraser, awkwardly. "I don't want to be dragged into this, you know. It isn't my business."

"If you know where he is, why can't you tell us?" asked Mrs. Tipping, softly. "There's no harm in that."

"What's the good?" enquired Fraser, in a low voice; "when you've seen the old man you won't be any forwarder—he wouldn't tell you anything even if he knew it."

"Well, we'd like to see him," said Mrs. Tipping, after a pause.

"You see, you put me in a difficulty," said Fraser; "if the skipper doesn't come aboard, you're going with us, I understand?"

Mrs. Tipping nodded. "Exactly," she said, sharply.

"That'll get me into trouble, if anything will," said the mate, gloomily. "On the other hand, if I tell you where he is now, that'll get me into trouble, too."

He sat back and drummed on the table with his fingers. "Well, I'll risk it," he said, at length; "you'll find him at 17, Beaufort Street, Bow."

The younger woman sprang excitedly to her feet, but Mrs. Tipping, eyeing the young man with a pair of shrewd, small eyes, kept her seat.

"And while we're going, how do we know the capt'n won't come back and go off with the ship?" she enquired.

Fraser hesitated. "Well, I'll come with you, if you like," he said, slowly.

"And suppose they go away and leave you, behind?" objected Mrs. Tipping.

"Oh, well, you'd better stay then," said the mate, wearily, "unless we take a couple of the hands with us. How would that suit you? They can't sail with half a crew."

Mrs. Tipping, who was by no means as anxious for a sea voyage as she tried to make out, carefully pondered the situation. "I'm going to take an arm of each of 'em and Matilda'll take yours," she said, at length.

"As you please," said Fraser, and in this way the procession actually started up the wharf, and looking back indignantly over its shoulder saw the watchman and Ben giving way to the most unseemly mirth, while the cook capered joyously behind them. A belated cab was passing the gate as they reached it, and in response to the mate's hail pulled sharply up.

Mrs. Tipping, pushing her captives in first, stepped heavily into the cab followed by her daughter, while the mate, after a brief discussion, clambered onto the box.

"Go on," he said, nodding.

"Wot, ain't the rest of you comin'?" enquired the cabman, eyeing the crowd at the gate, in pained surprise.

"No. 17, Beaufort Street, Bow," said Mrs. Tipping, distinctly, as she put her head out of the window.

"You could sit on 'er lap," continued the cabman, appealingly.

No reply being vouchsafed to this suggestion, he wrapped himself up in various rugs and then sat down suddenly before they could unwind themselves. Then, with a compassionate "click" to his horse, started up the road. Except for a few chance wayfarers and an occasional coffee-stall, the main streets were deserted, but they were noisy compared with Beaufort Street. Every house was in absolute darkness as the cab, with instinctive deference to slumber, crawled slowly up and down looking for No. 17.

It stopped at last, and the mate, springing down, opened the door, and handing out the ladies, led the way up a flight of steps to the street door.

"Perhaps you won't mind knocking," he said to Mrs. Tipping, "and don't forget to tell the cap'n I've done this to oblige you because you insisted upon it."

Mrs. Tipping, seizing the knocker, knocked loud and long, and after a short interval repeated the performance. Somebody was heard stirring upstairs, and a deep voice cried out that it was coming, and peremptorily requested them to cease knocking.

"That's not Flower's voice," said Fraser.

"Not loud enough," said Miss Tipping.

The bolts were drawn back loudly and the chain grated; then the door was flung open, and a big, red-whiskered man, blinking behind a candle, gruffly enquired what they meant by it.

"Come inside," said Mrs. Tipping to her following.

"Ain't you come to the wrong house?" demanded the red-whiskered man, borne slowly back by numbers.

"I don't think so," said Mrs. Tipping, suavely; "I want to see Captain Flower."

"Well, you've come to the wrong house," said the red-whiskered man, shortly, "there's no such name here."

"Think," said Mrs. Tipping.

The red-whiskered man waved the candle to and fro until the passage was flecked with tallow.

"Go away directly," he roared; "how dare you come disturbing people like this?"

"You may just as well be pleasant over it," said Mrs. Tipping, severely; "because we sha'n't go away until we have seen him. After all, it's got nothing to do with you."

"We don't want anything to say to you," affirmed her daughter.

"Will—you—get—out—of—my—house?" demanded the owner, wildly.

"When we've seen Capt'n Flower," said Mrs. Tipping, calmly, "and not a moment before. We don't mind your getting in a temper, not a bit. You can't frighten us."

The frenzied and reckless reply of the red-whiskered man was drowned in the violent slamming of the street-door, and he found himself alone with the ladies. There was a yell of triumph outside, and the sounds of a hurried scramble down the steps. Mrs. Tipping, fumbling wildly at the catch of the door, opened it just in time to see the cabman, in reply to the urgent entreaties of the mate, frantically lashing his horse up the road.

"So far, so good," murmured the mate, as he glanced over his shoulder at the little group posing on the steps. "I've done the best I could, but I suppose there'll be a row."

The watchman, with the remainder of the crew, in various attitudes of expectant curiosity, were waiting to receive them at the wharf. A curiosity which increased in intensity as the mate, slamming the gate, put the big bar across and turned to the watchman.

"Don't open that to anybody till we're off," he said, sharply. "Cap'n Flower has not turned up yet, I suppose?"

"No, sir," said Ben.

They went aboard the schooner again, and the mate, remaining on deck, listened anxiously for the return of the redoubtable Mrs. Tipping, occasionally glancing over the side in expectation of being boarded from the neighbouring stairs; but with the exception of a false alarm caused by two maddened seamen unable to obtain admittance, and preferring insulting charges of somnolency against the watchman, the time passed quietly until high water. With the schooner in midstream slowly picking her way through the traffic, any twinges of remorse that he might have had for the way he had treated two helpless women left him, and he began to feel with his absent commander some of the charm which springs from successful wrong-doing.


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