A Master of Craft

by W. W. Jacobs

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He brought up off Greenwich in the cold grey of the breaking day. Craft of all shapes and sizes were passing up and down, but he looked in vain for any sign of the skipper. It was galling to him as a seaman to stay there with the wind blowing freshly down the river; but over an hour elapsed before a yell from Tim, who was leaning over the bows, called his attention to a waterman's skiff, in the stern of which sat a passenger of somewhat dejected appearance. He had the air of a man who had been up all night, and in place of returning the hearty and significant greeting of the mate, sat down in an exhausted fashion on the cabin skylight, and eyed him in stony silence until they were under way again.

"Well," he said at length, ungraciously.

Chilled by his manner, Fraser, in place of the dramatic fashion in which he had intended to relate the events of the preceding night, told him in a few curt sentences what had occurred. "And you can finish this business for yourself," he concluded, warmly; "I've had enough of it."

"You've made a pretty mess of it," groaned the other; "there'll be a fine set-out now. Why couldn't you coax 'em away? That's what I wanted you to do. That's what I told you to do."

"Well, you'll have plenty of opportunities of coaxing yourself so far as I can see," retorted Fraser, grimly. "Then you'll see how it works. It was the only way of getting rid of them."

"You ought to have sent round to me and let me know what you were doing," said Flower. "I sat in that blamed pub till they turned me out at twelve, expecting you every minute. I'd only threepence left by then, and I crossed the water with that, and then I had to shuffle along to Greenwich as best I could with a bad foot. What'll be the end of it all, I don't know."

"Well, you're all right at present," said Fraser, glancing round; "rather different to what you'd have been if those two women had come to Ipswich and seen Cap'n Barber."

The other sat for a long time in thought. "I'll lay up for a few weeks with this foot," he said, slowly, "and you'll have to tell the Tipping family that I've changed into another trade. What with the worry I've had lately, I shall be glad of a rest."

He made his way below, and turning in slept soundly after his fatigue until the cook aroused him a few hours later with the information that breakfast was ready.

A wash and a change, together with a good breakfast, effected as much change in his spirits as in his appearance. Refreshed in mind and body, he slowly paced the deck, his chest expanding as he sniffed the fresh air, and his soul, encouraged by the dangers he had already passed through, bracing itself for fresh encounters.

"I 'ope the foot is goin' on well, sir," said Tim, breaking in upon his meditations, respectfully.

"Much easier this morning," said the skipper, amiably.

Tim, who was lending the cook a hand, went back into the galley to ponder. As a result of a heated debate in the fo'c's'le, where the last night's proceedings and the mysterious appearance of the skipper off Greenwich had caused a great sensation, they had drawn lots to decide who was to bell the cat, and Tim had won or lost according as the subject might be viewed.

"You don't want to walk about on it much, sir," he said, thrusting his head out again.

The skipper nodded.

"I was alarmed last night," said Tim. "We was all alarmed," he added, hastily, in order that the others might stand in with the risk, "thinking that perhaps you'd walked too far and couldn't get back."

The master of the Foam looked at him, but made no reply, and Tim's head was slowly withdrawn. The crew, who had been gazing over the side with their ears at the utmost tension, gave him five minutes' grace and then, the skipper having gone aft again, walked up to the galley.

"I've done all I could," said the wretched youth.

"Done all ye could?" said Joe, derisively, "why you ain't done nothin' yet."

"I can't say anything more," said Tim. "I dassent. I ain't got your pluck, Joe."

"Pluck be damned!" said the seaman, fiercely; "why there was a chap I knew once, shipwrecked he was, and had to take to the boats. When the grub give out they drew lots to see who should be killed and eaten. He lost. Did 'e back out of it? Not a bit of it; 'e was a man, an' 'e shook 'ands with 'em afore they ate 'im and wished 'em luck."

"Well, you can kill and eat me if that's what you want," said Tim, desperately. "I'd sooner 'ave that."

"Mind you," said Joe, "till you've arsked them questions and been answered satisfactorily—none of us'll 'ave anything to do with you, besides which I'll give you such a licking as you've never 'ad before."

He strolled off with Ben and the cook, as the skipper came towards them again, and sat down in the bows. Tim, sore afraid of his shipmates' con. tempt, tried again.

"I wanted to ask your pardon in case I done wrong last night, sir," he said, humbly.

"All right, it's granted," replied the other, walking away.

Tim raised his eyes to heaven, and then lowering them, looked even more beseechingly at his comrades.

"Go on," said Ben, shaping the words only with his mouth.

"I don't know, sir, whether you know what I was alloodin' to just now," said Tim, in trembling accents, as the skipper came within earshot again. "I'm a-referring to a cab ride."

"And I told you that I've forgiven you," said Flower, sternly, "forgiven you freely—all of you."

"It's a relief to my mind, sir," faltered the youth, staring.

"Don't mix yourself up in my business again, that's all," said the skipper; "you mightn't get off so easy next time."

"It's been worrying me ever since, sir," persisted Tim, who was half fainting. "I've been wondering whether I ought to have answered them ladies' questions, and told 'em what I did tell 'em."

The skipper swung round hastily and confronted him. "Told them?" he stuttered, "told them what?"

"I 'ardly remember, sir," said Tim, alarmed at his manner. "Wot with the suddenness o' the thing, an' the luckshury o' riding in a cab, my 'ead was in a whirl."

"What did they ask you?" demanded the shipper.

"They asked me what Cap'n Flower was like an' where 'e lived," said Tim, "an' they asked me whether I knew a Mr. Robinson."

Captain Flower, his eyes blazing, waited.

"I said I 'adn't got the pleasure o' Mr. Robinson's acquaintance," said Tim, with a grand air. "I was just goin' to tell 'em about you when Joe 'ere gave me a pinch."

"Well?" enquired the skipper, stamping with impatience.

"I pinched 'im back agin," said Tim, smiling tenderly at the reminiscence.

"Tim's a fool, sir," said Joe, suddenly, as the overwrought skipper made a move towards the galley. "'E didn't seem to know wot 'e was a sayin' of, so I up and told 'em all about you."

"You did, did you? Damn you," said Flower, bitterly.

"In answer to their questions, sir," said Joe, "I told 'em you was a bald-headed chap, marked with the small-pox, and I said when you was at 'ome, which was seldom, you lived at Aberdeen."

The skipper stepped towards him and laid his hand affectionately on his shoulder. "You ought to have been an admiral, Joe," he said, gratefully, without intending any slur on a noble profession.

"I also told George, the watchman, to tell 'em the same thing, if they came round again worrying," said Joe, proudly.

The skipper patted him on the shoulder again.

"One o' these days, Joe," he remarked, "you shall know all about this little affair; for the present it's enough to tell you that a certain unfortunate young female has took a fancy to a friend o' mine named Robinson, but it's very important, for Robinson's sake, that she shouldn't see me or get to know anything about me. Do you understand?"

"Perfectly," said Joe, sagely.

His countenance was calm and composed, but the cook's forehead had wrinkled itself into his hair in a strong brain effort, while Ben was looking for light on the deck, and not finding it. Flower, as a sign that the conversation was now ended, walked aft again, and taking the wheel from the mate, thoughtfully suggested that he should go below and turn in for five minutes.

"I'll get through this all right, after all," he said, comfortably. "I'll lay up at Seabridge for a week or two, and after that I'll get off the schooner at Greenwich for a bit and let you take her up to London. Then I'll write a letter in the name of Robinson and send it to a man I know in New York to post from there to Miss Tipping."

His spirits rose and he slapped Fraser heartily on the back. "That disposes of one," he said, cheerily. "Lor', in years to come how I shall look back and laugh over all this!"

"Yes, I think it'll be some time before you do any laughing to speak of," said Fraser.

"Ah, you always look on the dark side of things," said Flower, briskly.

"Of course, as things are, you're going to marry Miss Banks," said Fraser, slowly.

"No, I'm not," said the other, cheerfully; "it strikes me there's plenty of time before that will come to a head, and that gives me time to turn round. I don't think she's any more anxious for it than I am."

"But suppose it does come to a head," persisted Fraser, "what are you going to do?"

"I shall find a way out of it," said the skipper, confidently. "Meantime, just as an exercise for your wits, you might try and puzzle out what would be the best thing to do in such a case."

His good spirits lasted all the way to Seabridge, and, the schooner berthed, he went cheerfully off home. It was early afternoon when he arrived, and, Captain Barber being out, he had a comfortable tête à tête with Mrs. Church, in which he was able to dilate pretty largely upon the injury to his foot. Captain Barber did not return until the tea was set, and then shaking hands with his nephew, took a seat opposite, and in a manner more than unusually boisterous, kept up a long conversation.

It was a matter of surprise to Flower that, though the talk was by no means of a sorrowful nature, Mrs. Church on three separate occasions rose from the table and left the room with her handkerchief to her eyes. At such times his uncle's ideas forsook him, and he broke off not only in the middle of a sentence, but even in the middle of a word. At the third time Flower caught his eye, and with a dumb jerk of his head toward the door enquired what it all meant.

"Tell you presently," said his uncle, in a frightened whisper, "Hush! Don't take no notice of it. Not a word."

"What is it?" persisted Flower.

Captain Barber gave a hurried glance towards the door and then leaned over the table "Broken 'art," he whispered, sorrowfully.

Flower whistled, and, full of the visions which this communication opened up, neglected to join in the artificial mirth which his uncle was endeavouring to provoke upon the housekeeper's return. Finally he worked up a little mirth on his own account, and after glancing from his uncle to the housekeeper, and from the housekeeper back to his uncle again, smothered his face in his handkerchief and rushed from the room.

"Bit on a bad tooth," he said, untruthfully, when he came back.

Captain Barber eyed him fiercely, but Mrs. Church regarded him with compassionate interest, and, having got the conversation upon such a safe subject, kept it there until the meal was finished.

"What's it all about?" enquired Flower, as, tea finished, Captain Barber carried his chair to the extreme end of the garden and beckoned his nephew to do likewise.

"You're the cause of it," said Captain Barber, severely.

"Me?" said Flower, in surprise.

"You know that little plan I told you of when you was down here?" said the other.

His nephew nodded.

"It came off," groaned Captain Barber. "I've got news for you as'll make you dance for joy."

"I've got a bad foot," said Flower, paling.

"Never mind about your foot," said his uncle, regarding him fixedly. "Your banns are up."

"Up! Up where?" gasped Flower.

"Why—in the church," said the other, staring at him; "where do you think? I got the old lady's consent day before yesterday, and had 'em put up at once."

"Is she dead, then?" enquired his nephew, in a voice the hollowness of which befitted the question.

"How the devil could she be?" returned his uncle, staring at him.

"No, I didn't think of that," said Flower; "of course, she couldn't give her consent, could she—not if she was dead, I mean."

Captain Barber drew his chair back and looked at him. "His joy has turned his brain," he said, with conviction.

"No, it's my foot," said Flower, rallying. "I've had no sleep with it. I'm delighted! Delighted! After all these years."

"You owe it to me," said his uncle, with a satisfied air. "I generally see my way clear to what I want, and generally get it, too. I've played Mrs. Banks and Mrs. Church agin one another without their knowing it. Both 'elpless in my hands, they was."

"But what's the matter with Mrs. Church?" said his depressed nephew.

"Oh, that's the worst of it," said Uncle Barber, shaking his head. "While I was in play, that pore woman must have thought I was in earnest. She don't say nothing. Not a word, and the efforts she makes to control her feelings is noble."

"Have you told her she has got to go then?" enquired Flower.

Captain Barber shook his head. "Mrs. Banks saved me that trouble," he said, grimly.

"But she can't take notice from Mrs. Banks," said Flower, "it'll have to come from you."

"All in good time," said Captain Barber, wiping his face. "As I've done all this for you, I was going to let you tell her."

"Me!" said Flower, with emphasis.

"Certainly," said Captain Barber, with more emphasis still. "Just get her to yourself on the quiet and allude to it casual. Then after that bring the subject up when I'm in the room. As it's to make room for you and your wife, you might fix the date for 'er to go. That'll be the best way to do it."

"It seems to me it is rather hard on her," said his nephew, compassionately; "perhaps we had better wait a little longer."

"Certainly not," said Captain Barber, sharply; "don't I tell you your banns are up. You're to be asked in church first time next Sunday, You'll both live with me as agreed, and I'm going to make over three o' the cottages to you and a half-share in the ship. The rest you'll have to wait for. Why don't you look cheerful? You ought to."

"I'm cheerful enough," said Flower, recovering himself. "I'm thinking of you."

"Me?" said his uncle.

"You and Mrs. Church," said his nephew. "So far as I can see, you've committed yourself."

"I can manage," said Uncle Barber. "I've always been master in my own house. Now you'd better step round and see the bride that is to be."

"Well, you be careful," said his nephew, warningly.

"I'm coming, too," said Captain Barber, with some haste; "there's no need to stay and wait for trouble. When you go into the house, come back as though you'd forgotten something, and sing out to me that you want me to come too—hard enough for 'er to hear, mind."

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