A Master of Craft

by W. W. Jacobs

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Captain Barber walked to his house in thoughtful mood, and sighed as he thought of the uncertainty of life and the futility of earthly wishes. The blinds at his windows were all decently drawn, while the Union Jack drooped at half-mast in the front garden. He paused at the gate, with a strong distaste for encountering the subdued gloom and the wealth of womanly love which awaited him indoors, and bethinking himself of the masterless state of his craft, walked slowly back and entered the Thorn Inn.

"No news, I suppose, Captain Barber?" said the landlady, regarding him with great sympathy.

The captain shook his head, and exchanging greetings with a couple of neighbours, ordered something to drink.

"It's wonderful how you bear up, I'm sure," said the landlady. "When my poor dear died I cried every day for five weeks. I came down to skin and bone almost."

"Well, if I was you—" said the old man, irritably, and regarding the lady's ample proportions with an unfavourable eye.

"What?" enquired the other, pausing with her fingers on the whisky-tap.

"If I was you," repeated Captain Barber, slowly, in order to give time for full measure, "I should go an' cry for five months all day and all night."

The landlady put the glass in front of him sharply, and after giving him his change without looking at him, thoughtfully wiped down the counter.

"Mrs. Church quite well?" she enquired, with studied artlessness.

"Quite well," replied the captain, scenting danger.

The landlady, smiling amiably, subsided into a comfortable Windsor-chair, and shook her head at him so severely that, against his better sense, he felt compelled to demand an explanation.

"There, there," replied the landlady, "get along with you, do! Innocence!"

"It's no good, Cap'n Barber," said one of the customers, with the best intentions in the world.

"It struck me all of a heap," said the landlady.

"So it did me," said the other man.

"My missus knew it all along," said the first man; "she said she knew it by the way they looked at one another."

"Might I ask who you're talking of?" demanded the incensed Barber, who had given up the effort to appear unconscious as being beyond his powers.

"A young engaged couple," said the landlady.

The captain hesitated. "What have you been shaking your head at me and telling me it's no good for, then?" he demanded.

"At your pretending not to have heard of it," said the landlady.

"I have not 'eard of it," said Captain Barber, fiercely, as he took up his glass and walked towards the parlour. "I've got something better to do than talk about my neighbours' affairs."

"Yes, of course you have," said the landlady. "We know that."

The indignant Barber closed the door behind him with a bang, and, excited with the controversy, returned with a short and suspicious nod the greeting of a small man of shrunken and forlorn aspect who was sitting at the other side of the room.

"Mornin', Cap'n Nibletts," he growled.

"Mornin, sir," said Nibletts; "how's things?"

Captain Barber shook his head. "Bad as bad can be," he replied, slowly; "there's no hope at all. I'm looking for a new master for my vessel."

Nibletts looked up at him eagerly, and then looked away again. His last command had hoisted the green flag at the mouth of the river in a position which claimed attention, respect, and profanity from every craft which passed, its master having been only saved from the traditional death of the devoted shipmaster by the unpardonable conduct of the mate, who tore him from his craft by the scruff of his neck and the seat of his trousers.

"What about Harris?" he suggested.

"I don't like Harris's ways," said Barber, slowly.

"Well, what about Fletcher?" said Nibletts.

"Fletcher's ways are worse than wot Harris's ways are," commented Captain Barber.

"I can understand you being careful," said Captain Nibletts; "she's the prettiest little craft that ever sailed out of Seabridge. You can't be too careful.".

"If things 'ad been different," said the gratified owner, rolling his whisky round his mouth and swallowing it gently, "I'd have liked you to have 'ad her."

"Thankee," said Nibletts, quietly.

There was a pause, during which both men eyed the noble specimens of fish which are preserved for tavern parlours. Captain Barber took another sip of whisky.

"I'm going to use my own judgment, Nibletts," he said slowly. "I've always rose superior to the opinions of other people. There's nobody you know would give you a ship. I'm going to give you the Foam!"

Captain Nibletts, rising from his seat, crossed over, and taking his hand, thanked him in broken accents for this overpowering expression of confidence in him. Then he walked back, and taking his whisky from the table, threw it on the floor.

"I've had enough of that," he said briefly. "When am I to take her over, Cap'n Barber?"

"So soon as ever you please," said his benefactor. "Old Ben'll stay on as mate; Fraser's gone."

Captain Nibletts thanked him again, and, clapping on his hard hat, passed hastily into the bar, his small visage twisted into a smile, to which it had long been a stranger. With the customers in the bar he exchanged remarks of so frivolous a nature in passing that the landlady nearly dropped the glass she was wiping, and then, crimson with indignation, as the door swung behind him, realised that the melancholy and usually respectful Nibletts had thought fit to publicly address her as "Gertie."

In the same high spirits the new master swung hastily down the road to his new command. Work had already commenced, and the energetic Ben, having been pushed over once by a set of goods in the slings owing to the frantic attempts of the men at the hand-crane to keep pace with his demands, was shouting instructions from a safe distance. He looked round as Nibletts stepped aboard, and, with a wary eye on the crane, bustled towards him.

"Wot can we do for you, Cap'n Nibletts?" he enquired, with a patronising air.

"I'm to be master," replied the other, quietly.

"You?" said Ben, with offensive astonishment, as he saw the death of his own ambitious hopes in that quarter. "You to be master?"

Nibletts nodded and coloured. "Cap'n Barber just gave me the berth," he remarked.

Ben sighed and shook his head. "He'll never be the same man ag'in," he affirmed, positively; "'e went away: from 'ere dazed, quite dazed. 'Ow was 'e when you saw 'im?"

"He was all right," was the reply.

Ben shook his head as one who knew better. "I 'ope he won't get no more shocks," he observed, gravely. "It'll be nice for you to get to sea ag'in, Cap'n."

Captain Nibletts raised his weather-beaten countenance and sniffed the air with relish.

"You'll be able to see the Diadem as we go by," continued the sorely-aggravated Ben. "There's just her masts showing at 'igh water."

A faint laugh rose from somebody in the hold, and Nibletts, his face a dull red, stole quietly below and took possession of his new quarters. In the course of the day he transferred his belongings to the schooner, and, as though half fearful that his new command might yet slip through his fingers, slept on board.

On the way back to London a sum in simple proportion, set by Joe, helped to exercise the minds of the crew in the rare intervals which the new mate allowed them for relaxation: "If Ben was bad on the fust v'y'ge, and much wuss on the second, wot 'ud he be like on the tenth?" All agreed that the answer would require a lot of working. They tarred the rigging, stropped the blocks, and in monkey-like attitudes scraped the masts. Even the cook received a little instruction in his art, and estranged the affections of all hands by a "three-decker," made under Ben's personal supervision.

The secret society discussed the matter for some time in vain. The difficulty was not so much in inventing modes of retaliation as in finding some bold spirit to carry them out. In vain did the president allot tasks to his admiring followers, preceded by excellent reasons why he should not perform them himself. The only one who showed any spirit at all was Tim, and he, being ordered to spill a little tar carelessly from aloft, paid so much attention to the adverb that Joe half killed him when he came down again.

Then Mr. William Green, having learnt that the mate was unable to read, did wonders with a piece of chalk and the frying pan, which he hung barometer fashion outside the galley when the skipper was below, the laughter of the delighted crew bearing witness to the success of his efforts, laughter which became almost uncontrollable as the mate, with as stately an air as he could assume, strode towards the galley and brought up in front of the frying-pan.

"Wot's all that, cook?" he demanded, pointing to the writing.

"Wot, sir?" asked the innocent.

"On the frying-pan," replied Ben, scowling.

"That's chalk-marks," explained the cook, "to clean it with."

"It looks to me like writing," snapped the mate.

"Lor, no, sir," said the cook, with a superior smile.

"I say it does," said Ben, stamping.

"Well, o' course you know best, sir," said the cook, humbly. "I ain't nothing of a scholard myself. If it's writing, wot does it say, please?"

"I don't say it is writing," growled the old man. "I say it looks like it."

"I can assure you you're mistook, sir," said the cook, blandly; "you see, I clean the sorsepans the same way. I only 'eard of it lately. Look 'ere."

He placed the articles in question upside down in a row on the deck, and Tim, reading the legends inscribed thereon, and glancing from them to the mate, was hastily led below in an overwrought condition by the flattered Mr. Green.

"Cook," said the mate, ferociously.

"Sir," said the other.

"I won't 'ave the sorsepans cleaned that way.

"No, sir," said the cook, respectfully, "it does make 'em larf, don't it, sir, though I can't see wot they're larfing at any more than wot you can."

The mate walked off fuming, and to his other duties added that of inspector of pots and pans, a condition of things highly offensive to the cook, inasmuch as certain culinary arrangements of his, only remotely connected with cleanliness, came in for much unskilled comment.

The overworked crew went ashore at the earliest possible moment after their arrival in London, in search of recuperative draughts. Ben watched them a trifle wistfully as they moved off, and when Nibletts soon after followed their example without inviting him to join him in a social glass of superior quality, smiled mournfully as he thought of the disadvantages of rank.

He sat for some time smoking in silence, monarch of all he surveyed, and then, gazing abstractedly at the silent craft around him, fell into a pleasant dream, in which he saw himself in his rightful position as master of the Foam, and Nibletts, cashiered for drunkenness, coming to him for employment before the mast. His meditations were disturbed by a small piece of coal breaking on the deck, at which he looked lazily, until, finding it followed by two other pieces, he reluctantly came to the conclusion that they were intended for him. A fourth piece, better aimed, put the matter beyond all reasonable doubt, and, looking up sharply, he caught the watchman in the act of launching the fifth.

"Hullo, old 'un," said George, cheerfully, "I thought you was asleep."

"You thought wrong, then," said the mate, sourly; "don't you do that ag'in."

"Why, did I 'urt you?" said the other, surprised at his tone.

"Next time you want to chuck coal at anybody," continued Ben, with dignity, "pick out one o' the 'ands; mates don't like 'aving coal chucked at 'em by watchmen."

"Look who we are," gasped the petrified George. "Look who we are," he repeated, helplessly. "Look who we are."

"Keep your place, watchman," said the mate, severely; "keep your place, and I'll keep mine."

The watchman regarded him for some time in genuine astonishment, and then, taking his old seat on the post, thrust his hands in his pockets, and gave utterance to this shocking heresy, "Mates ain't nothing."

"You mind your business, watchman," said the nettled Ben, "and I'll mind mine."

"You don't know it," retorted the other, breathing heavily; "be—sides, you don't look like a mate. I wouldn't chuck coal at a real mate."

He said no more, but sat gazing idly up and down the river with a face from which all expression had been banished, except when at intervals his gaze rested upon the mate, when it lit up with an expression of wonder and joy which made the muscles ache with the exercise.

He was interrupted in this amusement by the sound of footsteps and feminine voices behind him; the indefatigable Tippings were paying another of their informal visits, and, calmly ignoring his presence, came to the edge of the jetty and discussed ways and means of boarding the schooner.

"Mr. Fraser's gone," said the watchman, politely and loudly, "there's a new skipper now, and that tall, fine, 'andsome, smart, good-looking young feller down there is the new mate."

The new mate, looking up fiercely, acknowledged the introduction with an inhospitable stare, a look which gave way to one of anxiety as Mrs. Tipping, stepping into the rigging, suddenly lost her nerve, and, gripping it tightly, shook it in much the same fashion as a stout bluebottle shakes the web of a spider.

"Hold tight, mar," cried her daughter, excitedly.

The watchman stepped into the rigging beside her, and patted her soothingly on the back; the mate, coming to the side, took her foot and assisted her to reach the deck. Miss Tipping followed, and the elder lady, after recovering from the shock caused by her late peril, fell to discussing the eternal subject of Mr. Robinson with the new mate.

"No, I never see 'im," said Ben, thoughtfully; "I never heard of him till you come asking arter 'im.

"You must make up your mind he's gone," said Mrs. Tipping, turning to her daughter, "that's what I keep telling you. I never was so tired of anything in my life as tramping down here night after night. It ain't respectable."

"You needn't come," said the other, dutifully. "He was last heard of on this ship, and where else am I to look for him? You said you'd like to find him yourself."

"I should," said Mrs. Tipping, grimly; "I should. Me an' him are to have a little talk, if ever we do meet."

"If he ever comes aboard this ship," said the mate, firmly, "I'll tackle him for you."

"Find out where he lives," said Mrs. Tipping, eagerly.

"And let us know," added her daughter, giving him a card; "that's our address, and any time you're up our way we shall be very pleased to see you, Mr.——"

"Brown," said the mate, charmed with their manners. "Mr. Brown."

"Ben," cried a voice from the wharf.

The new mate gazed austerely at the small office-boy above.

"Letter for the mate," said the youth, who was unversed in recent history; "catch."

He pitched it to the deck and walked off whistling. There was only one mate in Ben's world, and he picked the letter up and put it in his pocket.

"Don't mind us, if you want to read it," said Mrs. Tipping, kindly.

"Only business, I expect," said Ben, grandly.

He took it from his pocket, and, tearing the envelope, threw it aside and made a feint of reading the contents.

"Not bad news, I hope?" said Mrs. Tipping, noticing his wrinkled brow.

"I can't read without my glasses," said the mate, with a measure of truth in the statement. He looked at Mrs. Tipping, and saw a chance of avoiding humiliation.

"P'r'aps you'd just look at it and see if it's important," he suggested.

Mrs. Tipping took the letter from him, and, after remarking on the strangeness of the handwriting, read aloud:—

"Dear Jack:—If you want to see Mr. Norton, come to 10, John Street, Walworth, and be careful nobody sees you."

"Jack," said the mate, stooping for the envelope.

"Why it must be meant for Mr.—for Jack Fraser."

"Careful nobody sees you," murmured Miss Tipping, excitedly, as she took the envelope from the mate; "why, the address is printed by hand."

Mother and daughter looked at each other. It was evident that their thoughts were similar, and that one could have known them without the expenditure of the proverbial penny.

"I'll give it to him when I see him," remarked Ben, thrusting the letter in his pocket. "It don't seem to be important. He ain't in London, at present, I don't think."

"I shouldn't think it was important at all," said Mrs. Tipping, soothingly.

"Not at all," echoed her daughter, whose cheek was burning with excitement. "Good-night, Mr. Brown."

Ben bade them good-night, and in his capacity of host walked up the wharf with them and saw them depart.

"Nice little thing, ain't she?" said the watchman who was standing there, after Mrs. Tipping had bidden the mate good-bye; "be careful wot you're a-doin' of, Ben. Don't go and spile yourself by a early marriage, just as you're a-beginning to get on in life. Besides, a mate might do better than that, and she'd only marry you for your persition."


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