A Master of Craft

by W. W. Jacobs

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In happy ignorance that the late master of the Foam had secured a suite of rooms at the Blue Posts Hotel, the late mate returned to London by train with a view of getting into communication with him as soon as possible. The delay occasioned by his visit to Bittlesea was not regretted, Mr. Fraser senior having at considerable trouble and expense arranged for him to take over the Swallow at the end of the week.

Owing to this rise in his fortune he was in fairly good spirits, despite the slur upon his character, as he made his way down to the wharf. The hands had knocked off work for the day, and the crew of the schooner, having finished their tea, were sprawling in the bows smoking in such attitudes of unstudied grace as best suited the contours of their figures. Joe looked up as he approached, and removing his pipe murmured something inaudible to his comrades.

"The mate's down below, sir," said Mr. William Green in reply to Fraser. "I shall be pleased to fetch him."

He walked aft and returned shortly, followed by Ben, who, standing stiffly before his predecessor, listened calmly to his eager enquiry about his letter.

"No, there's been nothing for you," he said, slowly. He had dropped the letter overboard as the simplest way of avoiding unpleasantness. "Was you expecting one?"

Fraser, gazing blankly at him, made no reply, being indeed staggered by the thoroughness with which he imagined the wily Flower was playing his part.

"He's going to be lost his full six months, that's evident," he thought, in consternation. "He must have seen the way I should be affected; it would serve him right to tell the whole thing right away to Captain Barber."

"If anything does come I'll send it on to you," said Ben, who had been watching him closely.

"Thanks," said Fraser, pondering, and walked away with his eyes on the ground. He called in at the office as he passed it; the staff had gone, but the letter-rack which stood on the dusty, littered mantel-piece was empty, and he went into the street again.

His programme for the evening thus suddenly arrested, he walked slowly up Tower Hill into the Minories, wondering what to do with himself. Something masquerading as a conscience told him severely that he ought to keep his promise to the errant Flower and go and visit Poppy; conscience without any masquerading at all told him he was a humbug, and disclaimed the responsibility. In the meantime, he walked slowly in the direction of Poplar, and having at length made up a mind which had been indulging in civil war all the way, turned up Liston Street and knocked at the Wheelers' door.

A murmur of voices' from the sitting-room stopped instantly. A double knock was a rare occurrence on that door, and was usually the prelude to the sudden disappearance of the fairer portion of the family, while a small boy was told off to answer it, under dire penalties if he officiated too soon.

This evening, however, the ladies had made their toilet, and the door was opened after a delay merely sufficient to enable them to try and guess the identity of the guest before the revelation. Poppy Tyrell opened it, and turned upon him eyes which showed the faintest trace of surprise.

"Good evening," said Fraser, holding out his hand.

"Good evening," said the girl.

"Fine weather we're having," said the embarrassed ex-mate, "for June," he added, in justification of the remark.

Miss Tyrell assented gravely, and stood there waiting.

It is probable that two members at least of the family would have been gratified by the disappearance of the caller then and there, but that Mr. Wheeler, a man of great density and no tact whatever, came bustling out into the passage, and having shaken hands in a hearty fashion, told him to put his hat on a nail and come in.

"No news of the cap'n, I suppose?" he asked, solemnly, after Fraser was comfortably seated.

"Not a word," was the reply.

The dock-foreman sighed and shook his head as he reflected on the instability of human affairs. "There's no certainty about anything," he said, slowly. "Only yesterday I was walking down the Commercial Road, and I slipped orf the curb into the road before you could say Jack Robinson."

"Nearly run over?" queried Fraser.

Mr. Wheeler shook his head. "No," he said, quietly.

"Well, what of it?" enquired his son.

"It might just as well have been the edge of the dock as the curb; that's what I mean," said Mr. Wheeler, with a gravity befitting his narrow escape.

"I'm alwis telling you not to walk on the edge, father," said his wife, uneasily.

The dock-foreman smiled faintly. "Dooty must be done," he said, in a firm voice. "I'm quite prepared, my life's insured, and I'm on the club, and some o' the children are getting big now, that's a comfort."

A feeling of depression settled on all present, and Augustus Wheeler, aged eight, having gleaned from the conversation that his sire had received instructions, which he intended promptly to obey, to fall into the dock forthwith, suddenly opened his mouth and gave vent to his affection and despair in a howl so terrible that the ornaments on the mantelpiece shook with it.

"Don't scold 'im," said the dock-foreman, tenderly, as Mrs. Wheeler's thin, shrill voice entered into angry competition with the howl; "never mind, Gussie, my boy, never mind."

This gentleness had no effect, Gussie continuing to roar with much ardour, but watching out of the corner of one tear-suffused eye the efforts of his eldest sister to find her pocket.

"Hold your noise and I'll give you a ha'penny," she said, tartly.

Gussie caught his breath with a sob, but kept steam up, having on some similar occasions been treated with more diplomacy than honesty. But to-day he got the half-penny, together with a penny from the visitor, and, having sold his concern in his father for three halfpence, gloated triumphantly in a corner over his envious peers.

"Death," said Mr. Wheeler, slowly, after silence had been restored, "is always sudden. The most sudden death I knew 'appened to a man who'd been dying for seven years. Nobody seemed to be able to believe he'd gone at last."

"It's a good job he wasn't married," said Mrs. Wheeler, raising herself on her elbow; "sailors 'ave no right to marry at all. If I thought that one 'o my gals was goin' to marry a sailor, I don't know what I shouldn't do. Something steady on shore is the thing."

"I don't know," said the tactless Mr. Wheeler. "I think if I was a gal I should like to marry a sailor; there's something romantic about them. I often wish I'd been a sailor."

"Then you wouldn't 'ave 'ad me," said the lady from the sofa, grimly.

Mr. Wheeler sighed, but whether at the thought of what he might have lost or what he had gained, cannot be safely determined. Still in a morbid mood, he relapsed into silence, leaving Fraser to glance anxiously to where Poppy, pale and pretty, sat listening to the clumsy overtures of Mr. Bob Wheeler.

"I might 'ave 'ad two or three sailors if I'd liked," continued Mrs. Wheeler, musingly, "but I wouldn't."

Fraser murmured his admiration at her firmness.

"There was Tom Rogers, 'e was the first," said Mrs. Wheeler; "you remember 'im, father?"

"Chap with bow legs and a squint, wasn't he?" said the dock-foreman, anxious to please.

"I never saw 'im squint," said his wife, sharply. "Then there was Robert Moore—he was number two, I think."

"'Ad a wife a'ready," said Mr. Wheeler, turning to the visitor; "'e was a bright lot, 'e was."

"I don't know what they saw in me, I'm sure," said Mrs. Wheeler, with a little modest laugh; "it wasn't my good looks, I'm sure."

"You 'ad something better than good looks, my dear," said the dock-foreman, affectionately, "something what's wore better."

Mrs. Wheeler turned on the sofa, and detecting Gussie in the act of using his mouth as a moneybox, upbraided him shrilly and sent him into a corner. She then brought sundry charges of omission and commission against the other children, until the air was thick with denials and explanations, in the midst of which Fraser turned towards Poppy.

"I want to have a few minutes' talk with you, Miss Tyrell," he said, nervously.

The girl looked up at him. "Yes," she said, gravely.

"I mean alone," continued the other, marvelling at his hardihood; "it's private."

He lowered his voice from a shout to its normal tone as Emma Wheeler in self-defence opened the door and drove the small fry out.

"I've not got my rooms now," said the girl, quietly.

"Well, my dear—" began the dock-foreman.

"Don't interfere, father," said Mrs. Wheeler somewhat sharply. "I'm sure Mr. Fraser needn't mind saying anything before us. It's nothing he's ashamed of, I'm sure."

"Certainly not," said Fraser, sternly, "but it's quite private for all that. Will you put your hat on and come out a little way, Miss Tyrell?"

"That I'm sure she won't," said the energetic Mrs. Wheeler. "She's that particular she won't even go out with Bob, and they're like brother and sister almost. Will she, Bob?"

Mr. Bob Wheeler received the appeal somewhat sullenly, and in a low voice requested his parent not to talk so much. Fraser, watching Poppy closely, saw with some satisfaction a tinge of colour in her cheek, and what in any other person he would have considered a very obstinate appearance about her shapely chin.

"I'll get my hat on, if you'll wait a minute," she said, quietly.

She rose and went upstairs, and Fraser with a cheerful glance at Mrs. Wheeler entered into conversation with her husband about overside work in the docks, until the door was pushed open a little to reveal Miss Tyrell ready for walking.

They walked on for some little time in silence. The sun had set, and even in the close streets of Poplar the evening air was cool and refreshing. When this fact had thoroughly impressed itself on Mr. Fraser's mind he communicated it to Miss Tyrell.

"It's very pleasant," she answered, briefly. "What was it you wanted to talk to me about?"

"About a lot of things," said Fraser. "What a tremendous lot of children there are about here."

Miss Tyrell coldly admitted an obvious fact, and stepping out into the road to avoid spoiling a small maiden's next move at "hop scotch," returned to the pavement to listen to a somewhat lengthy dissertation upon the game in question.

"What did you want to say to me?" she asked at length, turning and regarding him.

"In the first place," said Fraser, "I wanted to tell you that, though nothing has been heard of Captain Flower, I feel certain in my own mind that he has not been drowned."

Miss Tyrell shook her head slowly.

"Then I ought to tell you that I have left the Foam" continued the other. "I think that there is some idea that I knocked Flower overboard to get his place."

The girl turned quickly, and her face flushed. "How absurd," she said, indignantly, and her manner softened.

"Thank you," said Fraser. "If you don't believe it, I don't care what anybody else thinks."

Miss Tyrell, looking straight in front of her, stole a glance at this easily satisfied young man from the corner of her eye. "I should never expect to hear of you doing anything wicked," she said. Fraser thanked her again, warmly. "Or venturesome," added Miss Tyrell, thoughtfully. "You're not the kind."

They walked on in silence; indignant silence on the part of the ex-mate.

"Then you are out of a berth?" said Poppy, not unkindly.

Fraser shook his head and explained. "And I told my father about you," he added, nervously. "He knew Flower very well, and he told me to say that he would be very pleased and proud if you would come down and stay with him at Bittlesea for a time."

"No, thank you," said Miss Tyrell.

"The air would do you good," persisted Fraser; "you could come down by train or come down with me on the Swallow next week."

Miss Tyrell repeated her refusal. "I must stay in London and get something else to do," she said, quietly.

"What do you think of doing?" enquired Fraser.

"Anything I can get," was the reply.

"And in the meantime——" he began, nervously.

"In the meantime I'm living on the Wheelers," said the girl, pressing her lips together; "that was what you were going to say, wasn't it?"

"I was not going to say anything of the kind," said Fraser, warmly. "I was not thinking of it."

"Well, it's true," said Poppy, defiantly.

"It isn't true," said Fraser, "because you will pay them back."

"Shall we turn back?" said the girl.

Fraser turned and walked beside her, and, glancing furtively at the pale, proud face, wondered how to proceed.

"I should be delighted if you would come to Bittlesea," he said, earnestly, "and I'm sure if Flower should ever turn up again, he would say it was the best thing you could have done."

"Thank you, but I prefer to stay here," was the reply, "and I don't wish to be ungrateful, but I wish that people would not trouble me with their charity."

She walked on in silence, with her face averted, until they reached Liston Street, and, stopping at the door, turned to bid him good-bye. Her face softened as she shook hands, and in the depths of her dark eyes as they met his he fancied that he saw a little kindness. Then the door opened, and, before he could renew his invitation, closed behind her as rapidly as Mr. Bob Wheeler could perform the feat.


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