A Master of Craft

by W. W. Jacobs

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He looked expectantly on the cabin table for a letter upon his return to the ship, but was disappointed, and the only letter yielded by the post next morning came from Captain Barber. It was couched in terms of great resignation, and after bemoaning the unfortunate skipper's untimely demise in language of great strength, wound up with a little Scripture and asked the mate to act as master and sail the schooner home.

"You'll act as mate, Ben, to take her back," said the new skipper, thrusting the letter in his pocket.

"Aye, aye, sir," said Ben, with a side glance at Joe, "but I'll keep for'ard, if you don't mind."

"As you please," said Fraser, staring.

"And you're master, I s'pose?" said Joe, turning to Fraser.

Fraser, whose manner had already effected the little change rendered necessary by his promotion from mate to master, nodded curtly, and the crew, after another exchange of looks, resumed their work without a word. Their behaviour all day was docile, not to say lamb-like, and it was not until evening that the new skipper found it necessary to enforce his authority.

The exciting cause of the unpleasantness was Mr. William Green, a slim, furtive-eyed young man, whom Fraser took on in the afternoon to fill the vacancy caused by Ben's promotion. He had not been on board half an hour before trouble arose from his attempt to introduce the manners of the drawing-room into the forecastle.

"Mr. Will-yum Green," repeated Joe, when the new arrival had introduced himself; "well, you'll be Bill 'ere."

"I don't see why, if I call you Mr. Smith, you shouldn't call me Mr. Green," said the other.

"Call me wot?" enquired Joe, sternly; "you let me 'ear you callin' me mister anythink, that's all; you let me 'ear you."

"I'm sure the cook 'ere don't mind me callin' 'im Mr. Fisher," said the new seaman.

"Cert'nly not," said the gratified cook; "only my name's Disher."

The newcomer apologised with an urbanity that rendered Joe and old Ben speechless. They gazed at each other in silent consternation, and then Ben rose.

"We don't want no misters 'ere," he said, curtly, "an' wot's more, we won't 'ave 'em. That chap's name's Bob, but we calls 'im Slushy. If it's good enough for us, it's good enough for a ordinary seaman wot's got an A. B. discharge by mistake. Let me 'ear you call 'im Slushy. Go on now."

"I've no call to address 'im at all just now," said Mr. Green, loftily.

"You call 'im Slushy," roared Joe, advancing upon him; "call 'im Slushy till I tell you to stop."

"Slushy," said Mr. Green, sullenly, and avoiding the pained gaze of the cook; "Slushy, Slushy, Slushy, Slushy, Sl——"

"That'll do," said the cook, rising, with a scowl. "You don't want to make a song abart it."

Joe, content with his victory, resumed his seat on the locker and exchanged a reassuring glance with Ben; Mr. Green, with a deprecatory glance at the cook, sat down and offered him a pipe of tobacco.

"Been to sea long?" enquired the cook, accepting it

"Not long," said the other, speaking very distinctly.

"I was brought up for something quite different. I'm just doing this till something better turns up. I find it very difficult to be a gentleman at sea."

The cook, with an eye on Joe, ventured on a gentle murmur of sympathy, and said that he had experienced the same thing.

"I 'ad money," continued Mr. Green, musingly, "and I run through it; then I 'ad more money, and I run through that."

"Ben," said Joe, suddenly, "pass me over that boot o' yours."

"Wha' for?" enquired Ben, who had just taken it off.

"To chuck at that swab there," said the indignant seaman.

Ben passed it over without a word, and his irritated friend, taking careful aim, launched it at Mr. Green and caught him on the side of the head with it. Pain standing the latter in lieu of courage, he snatched it up and returned it, and the next moment the whole forecastle was punching somebody else's head, while Tim, in a state of fearful joy, peered down on it from his bunk.

Victory, rendered cheap and easy by reason of the purblindness of the frantic cook, who was trying to persuade Mr. Green to raise his face from the floor so that he could punch it for him, remained with Joe and Ben, who, in reply to the angry shouts of the skipper from above, pointed silently to the combatants. Explanations, all different and all ready to be sworn to if desired, ensued, and Fraser, after curtly reminding Ben of his new position and requesting him to keep order, walked away.

A silence broken only by the general compliments of the much gratified Tim, followed his departure, although another outbreak nearly occurred owing to the cook supplying raw meat for Mr. Green's eye and refusing it for Joe's. It was the lack of consideration and feeling that affected Joe, not for the want of the beef, that little difficulty being easily surmounted by taking Mr. Green's. The tumult was just beginning again, when it was arrested by the sound of angry voices above. Tim, followed by Joe, sprang up the ladder, and the couple with their heads at the opening listened with appreciative enjoyment to a wordy duel between Mrs. Tipping and daughter and the watchman.

"Call me a liar, then," said old George, in bereaved accents.

"I have," said Mrs. Tipping.

"Only you're so used to it you don't notice it," remarked her daughter, scathingly.

"I tell you he's drownded," said the watchman, raising his voice; "if you don't believe me, go and ask Mr. Fraser. He's skipper in his place now."

He waved his hand in the direction of Fraser, who, having heard the noise, was coming on deck to see the cause of it. Mrs. Tipping, compressing her lips, got on board, followed by her daughter, and marching up to him eyed him severely.

"I wonder you can look us in the face after the trick you served us the other night," she said, fiercely.

"You brought it on yourselves," said Fraser, calmly. "You wouldn't go away, you know. You can't always be coming here worrying."

"We shall come whenever we choose," said Mrs. Tipping. "In the first place, we want to see Mr. Robinson; anyway we intend to see Captain Flower, so you can save that fat old man the trouble of telling us lies about him."

"Captain Flower fell overboard night before last, if that's what you mean," said Fraser, gravely.

"I never saw such a man in all my life," exclaimed Mrs. Tipping, wrathfully. "You're a perfect—what's the man's name in the Scriptures?" she asked, turning to her daughter.

Miss Tipping, shaking her head despondently, requested her parent not to worry her.

"Well, it doesn't signify. I shall wait here till he comes," said Mrs. Tipping.

"What, Ananias?" cried Fraser, forgetting himself.

Mrs. Tipping, scorning to reply, stood for some time gazing thoughtfully about her. Then, in compliance with her whispered instructions, her daughter crossed to the side and, brushing aside the outstretched hand of the watchman, reached the jetty and walked into the office. Two of the clerks were still working there, and she came back hastily to her mother with the story of the captain's death unmistakably confirmed.

Mrs. Tipping, loath to accept defeat, stood for some time in consideration. "What had Captain Flower to do with Mr. Robinson?" she asked at length, turning to Fraser.

"Can't say," was the reply.

"Have you ever seen Mr. Robinson?" enquired the girl.

"I saw him one night," said the other, after some deliberation. "Rather good-looking man, bright blue eyes, good teeth, and a jolly laugh."

"Are you likely to see him again?" enquired Miss Tipping, nodding in confirmation of these details.

"Not now poor Flower's gone," replied Fraser. "I fancy we shipped some cases of rifles for him one night. The night you first came. I don't know what it all was about, but he struck me as being rather a secretive sort of man."

"He was that," sighed Miss Tipping, shaking her head.

"I heard him say that night," said the mate, forgetful of his recent longings after truth, "that he was off abroad. He said that something was spoiling his life, I remember, but that duty came first."

"There, do you hear that, mother?" said Miss Tipping.

"Yes, I hear," said the other, with an aggressive sniff, as she moved slowly to the side. "But I'm not satisfied that the captain is dead. They'd tell us anything. You've not seen the last of me, young man, I can tell you."

"I hope not," said Fraser, cordially. "Any time the ship's up in London and you care to come down, I shall be pleased to see you."

Mrs. Tipping, heated with the climb, received this courtesy with coldness, and having enquired concerning the fate of Captain Flower of six different people, and verified their accounts from the landlord of the public-house at the corner, to whom she introduced herself with much aplomb as being in the profession, went home with her daughter, in whom depression, in its most chronic form, had settled in the form of unfilial disrespect.

Two hours later the Foam got under way, and, after some heated language owing to the watchman mistaking Mr. Green's urbanity for sarcasm, sailed slowly down the river. The hands were unusually quiet, but their behaviour passed unnoticed by the new skipper, who was too perturbed by the falsehoods he had told and those he was about to tell to take much heed of anything that was passing.

"I thought you said you preferred to keep for-'ard?" he said to Ben, as that worthy disturbed his meditations next morning by bustling into the cabin and taking his seat at the breakfast table.

"I've changed my mind; the men don't know their place," said the mate, shortly.

Fraser raised his eyebrows.

"Forget who I am," said Ben, gruffly. "I was never one to take much count of such things, but when it comes to being patted on the back by an A. B., it's time to remind 'em."

"Did they do that?" said Fraser, in a voice of horror.

"Joe did," said Ben. "'E won't do it ag'in, I don't think. I didn't say anything, but I think 'e knows my feelings."

"There's your berth," said Fraser, indicating it with a nod.

Ben grunted in reply, and being disinclined for conversation, busied himself with the meal, and as soon as he had finished went up on deck.

"Wot yer been down there for, Bennie?" asked Joe, severely, as he appeared; "your tea's all cold."

"I've 'ad my breakfast with the skipper," said Ben, shortly.

"You was always fond of your stummick, Bennie," said Joe, shaking his head, sorrowfully. "I don't think much of a man wot leaves his old mates for a bit o' bacon."

The new mate turned away from him haughtily, "Tim," he said, sharply.

"Yes, Ben," said the youth. "Why, wot's the matter? Wot are you looking like that for? Ain't you well?" "Wot did you call me?" demanded the new mate.

"I didn't call you anything," said the startled Tim.

"Let me 'ear you call me Ben ag'in and you'll hear of it," said the other, sharply. "Go and clean the brasswork."

The youth strolled off, gasping, with an envious glance at the cook, who, standing just inside the galley, cheerfully flaunted a saucepan he was cleaning, as though defying the mate to find him any work to do.

"Bill," said the mate.

"Sir," said the polite seaman.

"Help Joe scrub paintwork," was the reply.

"Me!" broke in the indignant Joe.

"Scrub—Look 'ere, Ben."

"Pore old Joe," said the cook, who had not forgiven him for the previous night's affair. "Pore old Joe."

"Don't stand gaping about," commanded the new mate. "Liven up there."

"It don't want cleaning. I won't do it," said Joe, fiercely.

"I've give my orders," said the new mate, severely; "if they ain't attended to, or if I 'ear any more about not doing 'em, you'll hear of it. The idea o' telling me you won't do it. The idea o' setting such an example to the young 'uns. The idea—Wot are you making that face for?"

"I've got the earache," retorted Joe, with bitter sarcasm.

"I thought you would 'ave, Joe," said the vengeful cook, retiring behind a huge frying-pan, "when I 'eard you singing this morning."

Fraser, coming on deck, was just in time to see a really creditable imitation of a famous sculpture as represented by Joe, Tim, and Ben, but his criticism was so sharp and destructive that the group at once broke and never re-formed. Indeed, with a common foe in the person of Ben, the crew adjusted their own differences, and by the time Seabridge was in sight were united by all the fearful obligations of a secret society of which Joe was the perpetual president.

Captain Barber, with as much mourning as he could muster at such short notice, was waiting on the quay. His weather-beaten face was not quite so ruddy as usual, and Fraser, with a strong sense of shame, fancied, as the old man clambered aboard the schooner, that his movements were slower than of yore.

"This is a dreadful business, Jack," he said, giving him a hearty grip, when at length he stood aboard the schooner.

"Shocking," said Fraser, reddening.

"I've spoken to have the coast-guards look out for him," said the old man. "He may come ashore, and I know he'd be pleased to be put in the churchyard decent."

"I'm sure he would," said Fraser. "I suppose there's no chance of his having been picked up. I slung a life-belt overboard."

Captain Barber shook his head. "It's a mysterious thing," he said slowly; "a man who'd been at sea all his life to go and tumble overboard in calm weather like that."

"There's a lot that's mysterious about it, sir," said Joe, who had drawn near, followed by the others. "I can say that, because I was on deck only a few minutes before it happened."

"Pity you didn't stay up," said Captain Barber, ruefully.

"So I thought, sir," said Joe, "but the mate saw me on deck and made me go below. Two minutes afterwards I heard a splash, and the skipper was overboard."

There was a meaning in his words that there was no mistaking. The old man, looking round at the faces, saw that the mate's was very pale.

"What did he make you go below for?" he asked, turning to Joe.

"Better ask him, sir," replied the seaman. "I wanted to stay up on deck, but I 'ad to obey orders. If I 'ad stayed on deck, he wouldn't have been cap'n."

Captain Barber turned and regarded the mate fixedly; the mate, after a vain attempt to meet his gaze, lowered his eyes to the deck.

"What do you say to all this?" enquired Barber, slowly.

"Nothing," replied the mate. "I did send Joe below and the skipper fell overboard a minute or two afterwards. It's quite true."

"Fell?" enquired Captain Barber.

"Fell," repeated the other, and looked him squarely in the eyes.

For some time Captain Barber said nothing, and the men, finding the silence irksome, shuffled uneasily.

"Fred saved your life once," said Barber, at length.

"He did," replied Fraser.

The old man turned and paced slowly up and down the deck.

"He was my sister's boy," he said, halting in front of the mate, "but he was more like my son. His father and mother were drownded too, but they went down fair and square in a gale. He stuck by his ship, and she stuck by him, God bless her."

Fraser nodded.

"I'm obliged to you for bringing my ship from London," said Barber, slowly. "I sha'n't want you to take 'er back. I sha'n't want you to stay in 'er at all. I don't want to see you again."

"That's as you please," said Fraser, trying to speak unconcernedly. "It's your ship, and it's for you to do as you like about her. I'll put my things together now."

"You don't ask for no reason?" asked Barber, eyeing him wistfully.

The other shook his head. "No," he said, simply, and went below.

He came up some little time later with his belongings in a couple of chests, and, the men offering no assistance, put them ashore himself, and hailing a man who was sitting in a cart on the quay, arranged with him to convey them to the station.

"Is 'e to be let go like this?" said Joe, hotly.

"Will you stop me?" demanded Fraser, choking with rage, as he stepped aboard again.

"Joe," said Ben, sharply.

The seaman glared at him offensively.

"Go for'ard," said the new mate, peremptorily, "go for'ard, and don't make yourself so busy."

The seaman, helpless with rage, looked to Captain Barber for guidance, and, the old man endorsing the new mate's order, went forward, indulging in a soliloquy in which Ben as a proper noun was mixed up in the company of many improper adjectives.

Fraser, clambering into the cart, looked back at the Foam. The old man was standing with his hands clasped behind his back looking down on the deck, while the hands stood clumsily by. With an idea that the position had suddenly become intolerable he sat silent until they reached the station, and being for the first time for many months in the possession of a holiday, resolved for various reasons to pay a dutiful visit to his father at Bittlesea.


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