A Master of Craft

by W. W. Jacobs

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The bewildered master of the Foam spent the remainder of the time at Seabridge in a species of waking nightmare.

A grey-haired dressmaker and a small apprentice sat in the Banks' best parlour, and from a chaos of brown paper patterns stuck over with pins a silk dress of surpassing beauty began slowly to emerge. As a great concession Flower was allowed to feel the material, and even to rub it between his finger and thumb in imitation of Captain Barber, who was so prone to the exercise that a small piece was cut for his especial delectation. A colour of unwonted softness glowed in the cheek of Elizabeth and an air of engaging timidity tempered her interview with Flower, who had to run the gauntlet of much friendly criticism on the part of his fair neighbours.

Up to the time of sailing for London again the allusion to Mrs. Church's departure, desired by Captain Barber, had not been made by the younger man. The housekeeper was still in possession, and shook hands with him at the front door as he limped slowly off with Miss Banks and his uncle to go down to the schooner. His foot was still very bad, so bad that he stumbled three times on the way to the quay despite the assistance afforded by the arm of his betrothed.

"Seems to be no power in it," he said smiling faintly; "but I daresay it'll be all right by the time. I get back."

He shook hands with Captain Barber and, as a tribute to conventionality, kissed Miss Banks. The last the two saw of him, he was standing at the wheel waving his handkerchief. They waved their own in return, and as the Foam drew rapidly away gave a final farewell and departed.

"What's the game with the foot?" enquired the mate, in a low voice.

"Tell you by-and-by," said the skipper; "it's far from well, but even if it wasn't I should pretend it was bad. I suppose that doesn't suggest anything to you?"

The mate shook his head.

"Can you see any way out of it?" enquired the other. "What would you do if you were in my place?"

"Marry the girl I wanted to marry," said the mate, sturdily, "and not trouble about anything else."

"And lose thirteen cottages and this ship and my berth in the bargain," said the skipper. "Now you try and think of some other way, and if you haven't thought of it by dinner-time, I'll tell you what I'm going to do."

No other scheme having suggested itself to the mate by the time that meal arrived, he prepared to play the part of listener. The skipper, after carefully closing both the door and the skylight, prepared to speak.

"I'm in a desperate fix, Jack, that you'll admit," he said, by way of preparation.

The mate cordially agreed with him.

"There's Poppy down at Poplar, Matilda at Chelsea, and Elizabeth at Seabridge," continued Flower, indicating various points on the table with his finger as he spoke. "Some men would give up in despair, but I've thought of a way out of it. I've never got into a corner I couldn't get out of yet."

"You want a little help though sometimes," said Fraser.

"All part of my plans," rejoined Flower, airily. "If it hadn't been for my uncle's interference I should have been all right. A man's no business to be so officious. As it is, I've got to do something decided."

"If I were you," interrupted Fraser, "I should go to Captain Barber and tell him straight and plain how the thing stands. You needn't mention anything about Miss Tipping. Tell him about the other, and that you intend to marry her. It'll be beat in the long run, and fairer to Miss Tyrell, too."

"You don't know my uncle as well as I do," retorted the skipper. "He's as obstinate an old fool as ever breathed. If I did as you say I should lose everything. Now, I'll tell you what I'm going to do:—To-night, during your watch, I shall come up on deck and stand on the side of the ship to look at something in the water, when I shall suddenly hear a shout."

The mate, who had a piece of dumpling on his fork, half-way to his mouth, put it down again and regarded him open-mouthed.

"My foot," continued the skipper, in surprisingly even tones, answering his subject, "will then give way and I shall fall overboard."

The mate was about to speak, but the skipper, gazing in a rapt manner before him, waved him into silence.

"You will alarm the crew and pitch a life-belt overboard," he continued; "you will then back sails and lower the boat."

"You'd better take the lifebelt with you, hadn't you?" enquired the mate, anxiously.

"I shall be picked up by a Norwegian barque, bound for China," continued the skipper, ignoring the interruption; "I shall be away at least six months, perhaps more, according as things turn out."

The mate pushed his scarcely tasted dinner from him, and got up from the table. It was quite evident to him that the skipper's love affairs had turned his brain.

"By the time I get back, Matilda'll have ceased from troubling, anyway," said the skipper, "and I have strong hopes that Elizabeth'll take Gibson. I shall stay away long enough to give her a fair chance, anyway."

"But s'pose you get drowned before anything can pick you up!" suggested the mate, feebly.

"Drowned?" repeated the skipper. "Why, you didn't think I was really going overboard, did you? I shall be locked up in my state-room."

The mate's brow cleared and then darkened again, suddenly. "I see, some more lies for me to tell, I suppose," he said, angrily.

"After you've raised the alarm and failed to recover the body," said the skipper, with relish, "you'll lock my door and put the key in your pocket. That would be the proper thing to do if I really did go overboard, you know, and when we get to London I'll just slip quietly ashore."

The mate came back to his dinner and finished it in silence, while the skipper kept up a rambling fire of instructions for his future guidance.

"And what about Miss Tyrell?" said the mate, at length. "Is she to know?"

"Certainly not," said Flower, sharply. "I wouldn't have her know for anything. You're the only person to know, Jack. You'll have to break the news to 'em all, and mind you do it gently, so as not to cause more grief than you can help."

"I won't do it at all," said the mate.

"Yes, you will," said Flower, "and if Matilda or her mother come down again, show it to 'em in the paper. Then they'll know it'll be no good worrying Cap'n Flower again. If they see it in the paper they'll know it's true; it's sure to be in the local papers, and in the London ones, too, very likely. I should think it would; the master of a vessel!"

Fraser being in no mood to regard this vanity complacently, went up on deck and declined to have anything to do with the matter. He maintained this attitude of immovable virtue until tea-time, by which time Flower's entreaties had so won upon him that he was reluctantly compelled to admit that it seemed to be the only thing possible in the circumstances, and more reluctantly still to promise his aid to the most unscrupulous extent possible.

"I'll write to you when I'm fixed up," said the skipper, "giving you my new name and address. You're the only person I shall be able to keep touch with. I shall have to rely upon you for everything. If it wasn't for you I should be dead to the world."

"I know what you'll do as well as possible," said Fraser; "you've got nothing to do for six months, and you'll be getting into some more engagements."

"I don't think you have any call to say that, Jack," remarked Flower, with some dignity.

"Well, I wish it was well over," said the mate, despondently. "What are you going to do for money?"

"I drew out £40 to get married with—furniture and things," said Flower; "that'll go overboard with me, of course. I'm doing all this for Poppy's sake more than my own, and I want you to go up and see her every trip, and let me know how she is. She mightn't care what happened to her if she thinks I'm gone, and she might marry somebody else in desperation."

"I don't care about facing her," said Fraser, bitterly; "it's a shady business altogether."

"It's for her sake," repeated Flower, calmly, "Take on old Ben as mate, and ship another hand forward."

The mate ended the subject by going to his bunk and turning in; the skipper, who realised that he himself would have plenty of time for sleep, went on deck and sat silently smoking. Old Ben was at the wheel, and the skipper felt a glow of self-rightousness as he thought of the rise in life he was about to give the poor fellow.

At eight o'clock the mate relieved Ben, and the skipper with a view of keeping up appearances announced his intention of turning in for a bit.

The sun went down behind clouds of smoky red, but the light of the summer evening lasted for some time after. Then darkness came down over the sea, and it was desolate except for the sidelights of distant craft. The mate drew out his watch and by the light of the binnacle-lamp, saw that it was ten minutes to ten. At the same moment he heard somebody moving about forward.

"Who's that for'ard?" he cried, smartly.

"Me, sir," answered Joe's voice. "I'm a bit wakeful, and it's stiflin' 'ot down below."

The mate hesitated, and then, glancing at the open skylight, saw the skipper, who was standing on the table.

"Send him below," said the latter, in a sharp whisper.

"You'd better get below, Joe," said the mate.

"W'y, I ain't doin' no 'arm, sir," said Joe, in surprise.

"Get below," said the mate, sharply. "Do you hear?—get below. You'll be sleeping in your watch if you don't sleep now."

The sounds of a carefully modulated grumble came faintly aft, then the mate, leaning away from the wheel to avoid the galley which obstructed his view, saw that his order had been obeyed.

"Now," said the skipper, quietly, "you must give a perfect scream of horror, mind, and put this on the deck. It fell off as I went over, d'ye see?"

He handed over the slipper he had been wearing, and the mate took it surlily.

"There ought to be a splash," he murmured. "Joe's awake."

The skipper vanished, to reappear a minute or two later with a sack into which he had hastily thrust a few lumps of coal and other rubbish. The mate took it from him, and, placing the slipper on the deck, stood with one hand holding the wheel and the other the ridiculous sack.

"Now," said the skipper.

The sack went overboard, and, at the same moment, the mate left the wheel with an ear-splitting yell and rushed to the galley for the life-belt which hung there. He crashed heavily into Joe, who had rushed on deck, but, without pausing, ran to the side and flung it overboard.

"Skipper's overboard," he yelled, running back and putting the helm down.

Joe put his head down the fore-scuttle and yelled like a maniac; the others came up in their night-gear, and in a marvellously short space of time the schooner was hove to and the cook and Joe had tumbled into the boat and were pulling back lustily in search of the skipper.

Half an hour elapsed, during which those on the schooner hung over the stern listening intently. They could hear the oars in the rowlocks and the shouts of the rowers. Tim lit a lantern and dangled it over the water.

"Have you got 'im?" cried Ben, as the boat came over the darkness and the light of the lantern shone on the upturned faces of the men.

"No," said Joe, huskily.

Ben threw him a line, and he clambered silently aboard, followed by the cook.

"Better put about," he said to the mate, "and cruise about until daylight. We ain't found the belt either, and it's just possible he's got it."

The mate shook his head. "It's no good," he said, confidently; "he's gone."

"Well, I vote we try, anyhow," said Joe, turning on him fiercely. "How did it happen?"

"He came up on deck to speak to me," said the mate, shortly. "He fancied he heard a cry from the water and jumped up on the side with his hand on the rigging to see. I s'pose his bad foot slipped and he went over before I could move."

"We'll cruise about a bit," said Joe, loudly, turning to the men.

"Are you giving orders here, or am I?" said the mate sternly.

"I am," said Joe, violently. "It's our duty to do all we can." There was a dead silence. Joe, pushing himself in between Ben and the cook, eyed the men eagerly.

"What do you mean by that?" said the mate at last.

"Wot I say," said Joe, meeting him eye to eye, and thrusting his face close to his.

The mate shrugged his shoulders and walked slowly aft; then, with a regard for appearances which the occasion fully warranted, took the schooner for a little circular tour in the neighbourhood of the skipper's disappearance.

At daybreak, not feeling the loss quite as much as the men, he went below, and, having looked stealthily round, unlocked the door of the state-room and peeped in. It was almost uncanny, considering the circumstances, to see in the dim light the skipper sitting on the edge of his bunk.

"What the blazes are you doing, dodging about like this?" he burst out, ungratefully.

"Looking for the body," said the mate. "Ain't you heard us shouting? It's not my fault—the crew say they won't leave the spot while there's half a chance."

"Blast the crew," said the skipper, quite untouched by this devotion. "Ain't you taking charge o' the ship?"

"Joe's about half mad," said the mate. "It's wonderful how upset he is."

The skipper cursed Joe separately, and the mate, whose temper was getting bad, closed the interview by locking the door.

At five o'clock, by which time they had cleared three masses of weed and a barnacle-covered plank, they abandoned the search and resumed the voyage. A gloom settled on the forecastle, and the cook took advantage of the occasion to read Tim a homily upon the shortness of life and the suddenness of death. Tim was much affected, but not nearly so much as he was when he discovered that the men were going to pay a last tribute to the late captain's memory by abstaining from breakfast. He ventured to remark that the excitement and the night air had made him feel very hungry, and was promptly called an unfeeling little brute by the men for his pains. The mate, who, in deference to public opinion, had to keep up appearances the same way, was almost as much annoyed as Tim, and, as for the drowned man himself, his state of mind was the worst of all. He was so ungrateful that the mate at length lost his temper and when dinner was served allowed a latent sense ot humour to have full play.

It consisted of boiled beef, with duff, carrots, and potatoes, and its grateful incense filled the cabin.

The mate attacked it lustily listening between mouthfuls for any interruption from the state-room. At length, unable to endure it any longer, the prisoner ventured to scratch lightly on the door.

"Hist!" said the mate, in a whisper.

The scratching ceased, and the mate, grinning broadly, resumed his dinner. He finished at last, and lighting his pipe sat back easily in the locker watching the door out of the corner of his eye.

With hunger at his vitals the unfortunate skipper, hardly able to believe his ears, heard the cook come down and clear away. The smell of dinner gave way to that of tobacco, and the mate, having half finished his pipe, approached the door.

"Are you there?" he asked, in a whisper.

"Of course I am, you fool!" said the skipper, wrathfully; "where's my dinner?"

"I'm very sorry," began the mate, in a whisper.

"What?" enquired the skipper, fiercely.

"I've mislaid the key," said the mate, grinning fiendishly, "an', what's more, I can't think what I've done with it."

At this intelligence, the remnants of the skipper's temper vanished, and every bad word he had heard of, or read of, or dreamt of, floated from his hungry lips in frenzied whispers.

"I can't hear what you say," said the mate. "What?"

The prisoner was about to repeat his remarks with a few embellishments, when the mate stopped him with one little word. "Hist!" he said, quietly.

At the imminent risk of bursting, or going mad, the skipper stopped short, and the mate, addressing a remark to the cook, who was not present, went up on deck.

He found the key by tea-time, and, his triumph having made him generous, passed the skipper in a large hunk of the cold beef with his tea. The skipper took it and eyed him wanly, having found an empty stomach very conducive to accurate thinking.

"The next thing is to slip ashore at Wapping, Jack," he said, after he had finished his meal; "the whar'll be closed by the time we get there."

"The watchman's nearly sure to be asleep," said Fraser, "and you can easily climb the gate. If he's not, I must try and get him out of the way somehow."

The skipper's forebodings proved to be correct. It was past twelve by the time they reached Wapping, but the watchman was wide awake and, with much bustle, helped them to berth their craft. He received the news of the skipper's untimely end with well-bred sorrow, and at once excited the wrath of the sensitive Joe by saying that he was not surprised.

"I 'ad a warning," he said solemnly, in reply to the indignant seaman. "Larst night exactly as Big Ben struck ten o'clock the gate-bell was pulled three times."

"I've pulled it fifty times myself before now," said Joe, scathingly, "and then had to climb over the gate and wake you up."

"I went to the gate at once," continued George, addressing himself to the cook; "sometimes when I'm shifting a barge, or doing any little job o' that sort, I do 'ave to keep a man waiting, and, if he's drunk, two minutes seems like ages to 'im."

"You ought to know wot it seems like," muttered Joe.

"When I got to the gate an' opened it there was nobody there," continued the watchman, impressively, "and while I was standing there I saw the bell-pull go up an' down without 'ands and the bell rung agin three times."

The cook shivered. "Wasn't you frightened, George?" he asked, sympathetically.

"I knew it was a warning," continued the vivacious George. "W'y'e should come to me I don't know. One thing is I think 'e always 'ad a bit of a fancy for me."

"He 'ad," said Joe; "everybody wot sees you loves you, George. They can't help theirselves."

"And I 'ave 'ad them two ladies down agin asking for Mr. Robinson, and also for poor Cap'n Flower," said the watchman; "they asked me some questions about 'im, and I told 'em the lies wot you told me to tell 'em, Joe; p'r'aps that's w'y I 'ad the warning."

Joe turned away with a growl and went below, and Tim and the cook after greedily waiting for some time to give the watchman's imagination a further chance, followed his example. George left to himself took his old seat on the post at the end of the jetty, being, if the truth must be told, some-what alarmed by his own fertile inventions.

Three times did the mate, in response to the frenzied commands of the skipper, come stealthily up the companion-way and look at him. Time was passing and action of some kind was imperative.

"George," he whispered, suddenly.

"Sir," said the watchman.

"I want to speak to you," said Fraser, mysteriously; "come down here."

George rose carefully from his seat, and lowering himself gingerly on board, crept on tiptoe to the galley after the mate.

"Wait in here till I come back," said the latter, in a thrilling whisper; "I've got something to show you. Don't move, whatever happens."

His tones were so fearful, and he put so much emphasis on the last sentence, that the watchman burst hurriedly out of the galley.

"I don't like these mysteries," he said, plainly.

"There's no mystery," said the mate, pushing him back again; "something I don't want the crew to see, that's all. You're the only man I can trust."

He closed the door and coughed, and a figure which had been lurking on the companion-ladder, slipped hastily on deck and clambered noiselessly onto the jetty. The mate clambered up beside it, and hurrying with it to the gate helped it over, and with much satisfaction heard it alight on the other side.

"Good-night, Jack," said Flower. "Don't forget to look after Poppy."

"Good-night," said the mate. "Write as soon as you're fixed."

He walked back leisurely to the schooner and stood in some perplexity, eyeing the galley which contained the devoted George, He stood for so long that his victim lost all patience, and, sliding back the door, peered out and discovered him.

"Have you got it?" he asked, softly.

"No," replied Fraser; "there isn't anything. I was only making a fool of you, George. Good-night."

He walked aft, and stood at the companion watching the outraged George as he came slowly out of the galley and stared about him.

"Good-night, George," he repeated.

The watchman made no reply to the greeting, but, breathing heavily, resumed his old seat on the post; and, folding his arms across his panting bosom, looked down with majestic scorn upon the schooner and all its contents. Long after the satisfied mate had forgotten the incident in sleep, he sat there striving to digest the insult of which he had been the victim, and to consider a painful and fitting retribution.


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