A Master of Craft

by W. W. Jacobs

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In happy ignorance of the changes caused by his sudden and tragic end, Captain Flower sat at the open window of his shabby Walworth lodging, smoking an after-breakfast pipe, and gazing idly into the dismal, littered yard beneath. Time—owing to his injured foot, which, neatly bandaged at a local dispensary, rested upon a second chair—hung rather heavily upon his hands as he sat thinking of ways and means of spending the next six months profitably and pleasantly. He had looked at the oleographs on the walls until he was tired, and even the marvels of the wax fruit under a cracked glass shade began to pall upon him.

"I'll go and stay in the country a bit," he muttered; "I shall choke here."

He took a slice of bread from the tray, and breaking it into small pieces, began to give breakfast to three hens which passed a precarious existence in the yard below.

"They get quite to know you now," said the small but shrewd daughter of the house, who had come in to clear the breakfast things away. "How'd you like your egg?"

"Very good," said Flower.

"It was new laid," said the small girl.

She came up to the window and critically inspected the birds. "She laid it," she said, indicating one of the three.

"She's not much to look at," said Flower, regarding the weirdest-looking of the three with some interest.

"She's a wonderful layer," said Miss Chiffers, "and as sharp as you make 'em. When she's in the dust-bin the others 'ave to stay outside. They can go in when she's 'ad all she wants."

"I don't think I'll have any more eggs," said Flower, casually. "I'm eating too much. Bacon'll do by itself."

"Please yourself," said Miss Chiffers, turning from the window. "How's your foot?"

"Better," said Flower.

"It's swelled more than it was yesterday," she said, with ill-concealed satisfaction.

"It feels better," said the captain.

"That's 'cos it's goin' dead," said the damsel; "then it'll go black all up your leg, and then you'll 'ave to 'ave it orf."

Flower grinned comfortably.

"You may larf," said the small girl, severely; "but you won't larf when you lose it, an' all becos you won't poultice it with tea leaves."

She collected the things together on a tea tray of enormous size, and holding it tightly pressed to her small waist, watched with anxious eyes as the heavy articles slowly tobogganed to the other end. A knife fell outside the door, and the loaf, after a moment's hesitation which nearly upset the tray, jumped over the edge and bounded downstairs.

Flower knocked the ashes out of his pipe, and slowly refilling it, began to peruse the morning paper, looking in vain, as he had looked each morning, for an account of his death.

His reading was interrupted by a loud knock at the street door, and he threw down the paper to be ready to receive the faithful Fraser. He heard the door open, and then the violent rushing upstairs of Miss Chiffers to announce his visitor.

"Somebody to see you, Mr. Norton," she panted, bursting into the room.

"Well, show him up," said Flower.

"All of 'em?" demanded Miss Chiffers.

"Is there more than one?" enquired Flower in a startled voice.

"Three," said Miss Chiffers, nodding; "two gentlemen and a lady."

"Did they say what their names were?" enquired the other, turning very pale.

Miss Chiffers shook her head, and then stooped to pick up a hairpin. "One of 'em's called Dick," she said, replacing the pin.

"Tell them I'm not at home," said Flower, hastily, "but that I shall be back at twelve o'clock, See?"

He produced a shilling, and the small girl, with an appreciative nod, left the room, and closed the door behind her. Flower, suffering severely from nervous excitement, heard a discussion in the passage below, and then sounds of a great multitude coming upstairs and opening various doors on its way, in spite of the indignant opposition afforded by the daughter of the house.

"What's in here?" enquired a well-known voice, as a hand was placed on his door handle.

"Nothing," said Miss Chiffers; "'ere, you go away, that's my bedroom. Go away, d'you 'ear?"

There was the sound of a diminutive scuffle outside, then the door opened and a smartly-dressed young man, regardless of the fair form of Miss Chiffers, which was coiled round his leg, entered the room.

"Why, Dick," said the skipper, rising, "Dick! Thank goodness it's you."

"I've no doubt you're delighted," said Mr. Tipping, coldly. "What are you doing with that knife?"

"I thought it was somebody else," said Flower, putting it down. "I thought it was another attempt on my life."

Mr. Tipping coughed behind his hand and murmured something inaudibly as his sister entered the room, followed by the third member of the party.

"Oh, Fred!" she said, wildly, "I wonder you can look me in the face. Where have you been all this time? Where have you been?"

"Give the man time to think," said her brother, exchanging a glance with the other man.

"I've been everywhere," said Flower, facing them defiantly. "I've been hunted all over the country."

"But where did you go when you left me that day?" enquired Miss Tipping.

"It's a long story," said Flower, slowly. "But you got the letter I wrote you?"

Miss Tipping shook her head.

"You didn't get it?" said Flower, in surprise. "I can't think what you must have thought of me."

"I'll tell you what I thought of you, if you'd like to know," interrupted Mr. Tipping, eagerly.

"I wrote to you to explain," said Flower, glibly "I went abroad suddenly, called away at a moment's notice."

"Special trains and all that sort o' thing, I s'pose," said Mr. Tipping, with interest.

"Dick," said Miss Tipping, fiercely.

"Well," said Dick, gruffly.

"Hold your tongue."

"I've not had any real sleep since," said Flower, pathetically, "what with the danger and thinking of you."

"Why didn't you write again?" enquired Miss Tipping.

"I asked you to write to a certain address in that letter I sent you," said Flower, "and when I came back to England and found there was no letter, I concluded that you couldn't forgive me."

Miss Tipping looked at him reproachfully, but Mr. Tipping, raising his eyes, gasped for air.

"But who are these enemies?" asked Miss Tipping, tenderly drawing closer to Flower.

"A man in the Government service——" began the captain.

He broke off disdainfully until such time as Mr. Tipping should have conquered a somewhat refractory cough.

"In the secret service," continued Flower, firmly, "has got enemies all round him."

"You'll have to get something else to do when we are married, Fred," said Miss Tipping, tearfully.

"You've forgiven me, then?" said Flower, hoping that he had concealed a nervous start.

"I'd forgive you anything, Fred," said Miss Tipping, tenderly; "you'll have to give up this job at once."

Captain Flower shook his head and smiled mournfully, thereby intimating that his services were of too valuable a nature for any Government to lightly dispense with.

"May I come round and see you to-morrow?" he enquired, putting his arm about the lady's waist.

"Come round to-morrow?" repeated Miss Tipping, in surprise; "why, you don't think I'm going to leave you here surrounded by dangers? You're coming home with us now."

"No, to-morrow," said the unhappy mariner, in a winning voice.

"You don't go out of my sight again," said Miss Tipping, firmly. "Dick, you and Fred shake hands."

The two gentlemen complied. Both were somewhat proud of their grip, and a bystander might have mistaken their amiable efforts to crush each other's fingers for the outward and visible signs of true affection.

"You'd better settle up here now, Fred," said Miss Tipping.

Flower, putting the best face he could upon it, assented with a tender smile, and, following them downstairs, held a long argument with Mrs. Chiffers as to the amount due, that lady having ideas upon the subject which did more credit to her imagination than her arithmetic.

The bill was settled at last, and the little party standing on the steps waited for the return of Miss Chiffers, who had been dispatched for a four-wheeler.

"Oh, what about your luggage, Fred?" enquired Miss Tipping, suddenly.

"Haven't got any," said Flower, quickly. "I managed to get away with what I stand up in, and glad to do that."

Miss Tipping squeezed his arm and leaned heavily upon his shoulder.

"I was very lucky to get off as I did," continued the veracious mariner. "I wasn't touched except for a rap over my foot with the butt-end of a revolver. I was just over the wall in time."

"Poor fellow," said Miss Tipping, softly, as she shivered and looked up into his face. "What are you grinning at, Dick?"

"I s'pose a fellow may grin if he likes," said Mr. Tipping, suddenly becoming serious.

"This is the first bit of happiness I've had since I saw you last," murmured Flower.

Miss Tipping squeezed his arm again.

"It seems almost too good to be true," he continued. "I'm almost afraid I shall wake up and find it all a dream."

"Oh, you're wide-awake enough," said Mr. Tipping.

"Wide-awake ain't the word for it," said the other gentleman, shaking his head.

"Uncle," said Miss Tipping, sharply.

"Yes, my dear," said the other, uneasily.

"Keep your remarks for those that like them," said his dutiful niece, "or else get out and walk."

Mr. Porson, being thus heckled, subsided into defiant mutterings, intended for Dick Tipping's ear alone, and the remainder of the drive to Chelsea passed almost in silence. Arrived at the Blue Posts, Flower got out with well-simulated alacrity, and going into the bar, shook hands heartily with Mrs. Tipping before she quite knew what he was doing.

"You've got him, then," she said, turning to her daughter, "and now I hope you're satisfied. Don't stand in the bar; I can't say what I want to say here—come in the parlour and shut the door."

They followed the masterful lady obediently into the room indicated.

"And now, Mr. Robinson," she said, with her hands on her hips, "now for your explanation."

"I have explained to Matilda," said Flower, waving his hand.

"That's quite right, mar," said Miss Tipping, nodding briskly.

"He's had a dreadful time, poor feller," said Dick Tipping, unctuously. "He's been hunted all over England by—who was it, Mister Robinson?"

"The parties I'm working against," said Flower, repressing his choler by a strong effort.

"The parties he's working against," repeated Mr. Tipping.

"Somebody ought to talk to them parties," said Mr. Porson, speaking with much deliberation, "that is, if they can find 'em."

"They want looking after, that's what they want," said Dick Tipping, with a leer.

"It's all very well for you to make fun of it," said Mrs. Tipping, raising her voice. "I like plain, straightforward dealing folk myself. I don't under-stand nothing about your secret services and Governments and all that sort of thing. Mr. Robinson, have you come back prepared to marry my daughter? Because, if you ain't, we want to know why not."

"Of course I have," said Flower, hotly. "It's the dearest wish of my life. I should have come before, only I thought when she didn't answer my letter that she had given me up."

"Where 'ave you been, and what's it all about?" demanded Mrs. Tipping.

"At present," said Flower, with an appearance of great firmness, "I can't tell you. I shall tell Matilda the day after we're married—if she'll still trust me and marry me—and you shall all know as soon as we think it's safe."

"You needn't say another word, mar," said Miss Tipping, warningly.

"I'm sure," said the elder lady, bridling. "Perhaps your uncle would like to try and reason with you."

Mr. Porson smiled in a sickly fashion, and cleared his throat.

"You see, my dear—" he began.

"Your tie's all shifted to one side," said his niece, sternly, "and the stud's out of your buttonhole. I wish you'd be a little tidier when you come here, uncle; it looks bad for the house."

"I came away in a hurry to oblige you," said Mr. Porson. "I don't think this is a time to talk about button-holes."

"I thought you were going to say something," retorted Miss Tipping, scathingly, "and you might as well talk about that as anything else."

"It ain't right," said Mrs. Tipping, breaking in, "that you should marry a man you don't know anything about; that's what I mean. That's only reasonable, I think."

"It's quite fair," said Flower, trying hard to speak reluctantly. "Of course, if Matilda wishes, I'm quite prepared to go away now. I don't wish her to tie herself up to a man who at present, at any rate, has to go about wrapped in a mystery."

"All the same," said Mrs. Tipping, with a gleam in her eyes, "I'm not going to have anybody playing fast and loose with my daughter. She's got your ring on her finger. You're engaged to be married to her, and you mustn't break it off by running away or anything of that kind. If she likes to break it off, that's a different matter."

"I'm not going to break it off," said Miss Tipping, fiercely; "I've made all the arrangements in my own mind. We shall get married as soon as we can, and I shall put Dick in here as manager, and take a nice little inn down in the country somewhere."

"Mark my words," said Mrs. Tipping, solemnly, "you'll lose him again."

"If I lose him again," said Miss Tipping, dramatically, "if he's spirited away by these people, or anything happens to him, Dick won't be manager here. Uncle Porson will have as much drink and as many cigars as he pays for, and Charlie will find another berth."

"Nobody shall hurt a hair of his head," said Mr. Tipping, with inimitable pathos.

"He must be protected against hisself," said Mr. Porson, spitefully; "that's the 'ardest part. He's a man what if 'e thinks it's his dooty 'll go away just as 'e did before."

"Well if he gets away from Charlie," said Mr. Tipping, "he'll be cute. There's one thing, Mr. Robinson: if you try to get away from those who love you and are looking after you, there'll be a fight first, then there'll be a police court fuss, and then we shall find out what the Government mean by it."

Captain Flower sat down in an easy posture as though he intended a long stay, and in a voice broken with emotion murmured something about home, and rest, and freedom from danger.

"That's just it," said Mrs. Tipping, "here you are, and here you'll stay. After you're married, it'll be Matilda's affair; and now let's have some tea."

"First of all, mar, kiss Fred," said Miss Tipping, who had been eyeing her parent closely.

Mrs. Tipping hesitated, but the gallant captain, putting a good face on it, sprang up and, passing his arm about her substantial waist, saluted her, after which, as a sort of set-off, he kissed Miss Tipping.

"I can only say," he said truthfully, "that this kindness hurts me. The day I'm married I'll tell you all."

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