A Master of Craft

by W. W. Jacobs

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OPPONENTS of medicine have hit upon a means of cleansing the system by abstaining for a time from food, and drinking a quantity of fair water. It is stated to clear the eyes and the skin, and to cause a feeling of lightness and buoyancy undreamt of by those who have never tried it. All people, perhaps, are not affected exactly alike, and Captain Flower, while admitting the lightness, would have disdainfully contested any charge of buoyancy. Against this objection it may be said, that he was not a model patient, and had on several occasions wilfully taken steps to remove the feeling of lightness.

It was over a fortnight since his return to London. The few shillings obtained for his watch had disappeared days before; rent was due and the cupboard was empty. The time seemed so long to him, that Poppy and Seabridge and the Foam might have belonged to another period of existence. At the risk of detection he had hung round the Wheelers night after night for a glimpse of the girl for whom he was enduring all these hardships, but without success. He became a prey to nervousness and, unable to endure the suspense any longer, determined to pay a stealthy visit to Wapping and try and see Fraser.

He chose the night on which in the ordinary state of affairs the schooner should be lying alongside the wharf; and keeping a keen lookout for friends and foes both, made his way to the Minories and down Tower Hill. He had pictured it as teeming with people he knew, and the bare street and closed warehouses, with a chance docker or two slouching slowly along, struck him with an odd sense of disappointment. The place seemed changed. He hurried past the wharf; that too was deserted, and after a loving peep at the spars of his schooner he drifted slowly across the road to the Albion, and, pushing the door a little way open, peeped cautiously in. The faces were all unfamiliar, and letting the door swing quietly back he walked on until he came to the Town of Yarmouth.

The public bar was full. Tired workers were trying to forget the labours of the day in big draughts of beer, while one of them had thrown off his fatigue sufficiently to show a friend a fancy step of which he was somewhat vain. It was a difficult and intricate step for a crowded bar, and panic-stricken men holding their beer aloft called wildly upon him to stop, while the barman, leaning over the counter, strove to make his voice heard above the din. The dancer's feet subsided into a sulky shuffle, and a tall seaman, removing the tankard which had obscured his face, revealed the honest features of Joe. The sight of him and the row of glasses and hunches of bread and cheese behind the bar was irresistible. The skipper caught a departing customer by the coat and held him.

"Do me a favour, old man," he said, heartily.

"Wot d'ye want?" asked the other, suspiciously.

"Tell that tall chap in there that a friend of his is waiting outside," said Flower, pointing to Joe.

He walked off a little way as the man re-entered the bar. A second or two later, the carman came out alone.

"'E ses come inside 'e ses if you want to see 'im."

"I can't," said Flower.

"Why not?" asked the other, as a horrible suspicion dawned upon him. "Strewth, you ain't a teetotaler, are you?"

"No," replied the skipper, "but I can't go in."

"Well 'e won't come out," said the other; "'e seems to be a short-tempered sort o' man."

"I must see him," said the skipper, pondering. Then a happy thought struck him, and he smiled at his cleverness. "Tell him a little flower wants to see him," he said, briskly.

"A little wot?" demanded the carman, blankly.

"A little flower," repeated the other.

"Where is she?" enquired the carman, casting his eyes about him.

"You just say that," said the skipper, hurriedly. "You shall have a pint if you do. He'll understand."

It was unfortunate for the other that the skipper had set too high an estimation on Joe's intelligence, for the information being imparted to him in the audible tones of confidence, he first gave his mug to Mr. William Green to hold, and then knocked the ambassador down. The loud laugh consequent on the delivery of the message ceased abruptly, and in the midst of a terrific hubbub Joe and his victim, together with two or three innocent persons loudly complaining that they hadn't finished their beer, were swept into the street.

"He'll be all right in a minute, mate," said a bystander to Joe, anxiously; "don't run away."

"'Tain't so likely," said Joe, scornfully.

"Wot did you 'it me for?" demanded the victim, turning a deaf ear to two or three strangers who were cuddling him affectionately and pointing out, in alluring whispers, numberless weak points in Joe's fleshly armour.

"I'll 'it you agin if you come into a pub making a fool of me afore people," replied the sensitive seaman, blushing hotly with the recollection of the message.

"He told me to," said the carman, pointing to Flower, who was lurking in the background.

The tall seaman turned fiercely and strode up to him, and then, to the scandal of the bystanders and the dismay of Mr. William Green, gave a loud yell and fled full speed up the road. Flower followed in hot pursuit, and owing, perhaps, to the feeling of lightness before mentioned, ran him down nearly a mile farther on, Mr. Green coming in a good second.

"Keep orf," panted the seaman, backing into a doorway. "Keep—it—orf!"

"Don't be a fool, Joe," said the skipper.

"Keep orf," repeated the trembling seaman.

His fear was so great that Mr. Green, who had regarded him as a tower of strength and courage, and had wormed himself into the tall seaman's good graces by his open admiration of these qualities, stood appalled at his idol's sudden lack of spirit.

"Don't be a fool, Joe," said the skipper, sharply; "can't you see it's me?"

"I thought you was drownded," said the trembling seaman, still regarding him suspiciously. "I thought you was a ghost."

"Feel that," said Flower, and gave him a blow in the ribs which almost made him regret that his first impression was not the correct one.

"I'm satisfied, sir," he said, hastily.

"I was picked up and carried off to Riga: but for certain reasons I needn't go into, I want my being alive kept a dead secret. You mustn't breathe a word to anybody, d'ye understand? Not a word."

"Aye, aye, sir," said Joe; "you hear that, Will-yum?"

"Who the devil's this?" demanded the skipper, who had not bargained for another confidant.

"It's the new 'and, sir," said Joe. "I'll be answerable for 'im."

Flower eyed the pair restlessly, but Mr. Green assured him with a courtly bow that Mr. Smith's assurances might be relied upon. "He hoped he was a gentleman," he said, feelingly.

"Some of us thought—I thought," said Joe, with a glance at the skipper, "that the mate shoved you overboard."

"You always were a fool," commented the skipper.

"Yes, sir," said Joe, dutifully, and as they moved slowly back along the road gave him the latest information about Seabridge and the Foam.

"The Swallow's just come up in the tier," he concluded; "and if you want to see Mr. Fraser, I'll go and see if he's aboard."

The skipper agreed, and after exacting renewed assurances of secrecy from both men, waited impatiently in the private bar of the Waterman's Arms while they put off from the stairs and boarded the steamer.

In twenty minutes, during which time the penniless skipper affected not to notice the restless glances of the landlord, they returned with Fraser, and a hearty meeting took place between the two men. The famished skipper was provided with meat and drink, while the two A. B.'s whetted their thirst in the adjourning bar.

"You've had a rough time," said Fraser, as the skipper concluded a dramatic recital of his adventures.

Flower smiled broadly. "I've come out of it right side uppermost," he said, taking a hearty pull at his tankard; "the worst part was losing my money. Still, it's all in the day's work. Joe tells me that Elizabeth is walking out with Gibson, so you see it has all happened as I bargained for."

"I've heard so," said Fraser.

"It's rather soon after my death," said Flower, thoughtfully; "she's been driven into it by her mother, I expect. How is Poppy?"

Fraser told him.

"I couldn't wish her in better hands, Jack," said the other, heartily, when he had finished; "one of these days when she knows everything—at least, as much as I shall tell her—she'll be as grateful to you as what I am."

"You've come back just in time," said Fraser, slowly; "another week, and you'd have lost her."

"Lost her?" repeated Flower, staring.

"She's going to New Zealand," replied the other; "she's got some relations there. She met an old friend of her father's the other day, Captain Martin, master of the Golden Cloud, and he has offered her a passage. They sail on Saturday from the Albert Dock."

Flower pushed the tankard from him, and regarded him in consternation.

"She mustn't go," he said, decisively.

Fraser shrugged his shoulders. "I tried to persuade her not to, but it was no use. She said there was nothing to stay in England for; she's quite alone, and there is nobody to miss her."

"Poor girl," said Flower, softly, and sat crumbling his bread and gazing reflectively at a soda-water advertisement on the wall. He sat so long in this attitude that his companion also turned and studied it.

"She mustn't go," said Flower, at length. "I'll go down and see her to-morrow night. You go first and break the news to her, and I'll follow on. Do it gently, Jack. It's quite safe; there's nobody she can talk to now; she's left the Wheelers, and I'm simply longing to see her. You don't know what it is to be in love, Jack."

"What am I to tell her?" enquired the other, hastily.

"Tell her I was saved," was the reply. "I'll do the rest. By Jove, I've got it."

He banged the table so hard that his plate jumped and the glasses in the bar rattled in protest.

"Anything wrong with the grub?" enquired the landlord, severely.

Flower, who was all excitement, shook his head.

"Because if there is," continued the landlord, "I'd sooner you spoke of it than smash the table; never mind about hurting my feelings."

He wiped down the counter to show that Flower's heated glances had no effect upon him, withdrawing reluctantly to serve an impatient customer.

"I'll go down to-morrow morning to the Golden Cloud and try and ship before the mast," said Flower, excitably; "get married out in New Zealand, and then come home when things are settled. What do you think of that, my boy? How does that strike you?"

"How will it strike Cap'n Barber?" asked Fraser, as soon as he had recovered sufficiently to speak.

Flower's eyes twinkled. "It's quite easy to get wrecked and picked up once or twice," he said, cheerfully. "I'll have my story pat by the time I get home, even to the names of the craft I was cast away in. And I can say I heard of Elizabeth's marriage from somebody I met in New Zealand. I'll manage all right."

The master of the Swallow gazed at him in help-less fascination.

"They want hands on the Golden Cloud," he said, slowly; "but what about your discharges?"

"I can get those," said Flower, complacently; "a man with money and brains can do anything. Lend me a pound or two before I forget it, will you? And if you'll give me Poppy's address, I'll be outside the house at seven to-morrow. Lord, fancy being on the same ship with her for three months."

He threw down a borrowed sovereign on the counter, and, ordering some more drinks, placed them on the table. Fraser had raised his to his lips when he set it down again, and with a warning finger called the other's attention to the remarkable behaviour of the door communicating with the next bar, which, in open defiance of the fact that it possessed a patent catch of the latest pattern, stood open at least three or four inches.

"Draught?" questioned Flower, staring at the phenomenon.

The other shook his head. "I'd forgotten those two chaps," he said, in a low voice; "they've been listening."

Flower shifted in his seat. "I'd trust Joe anywhere," he said, uneasily, "but I don't know about the other chap. If he starts talking at Seabridge I'm done. I thought Joe was alone when I sent in for him."

Fraser tapped his chin with his fingers. "I'll try and get 'em to ship with me. I want a couple of hands," he said, slowly. "I'll have them under my eye then, and, besides, they're better at Bittlesea than Seabridge in any case."

He rose noisily, and followed by Flower entered the next bar. Twenty minutes afterwards Flower bade them all a hearty good-night, and Mr. Green, walking back to the schooner with Joe, dwelt complacently on the advantages of possessing a style and address which had enabled them to exchange the rudeness of Ben for the appreciative amiability of Captain Fraser.

Flower was punctual to the minute next evening, and shaking hands hastily with Fraser, who had gone down to the door to wait for him, went in alone to see Miss Tyrell. Fraser, smoking his pipe on the doorstep, gave him a quarter of an hour, and then went upstairs, Miss Tyrell making a futile attempt to escape from the captain's encircling arm as he entered the room. Flower had just commenced the recital of his adventures. He broke off as the other entered, but being urged by Miss Tyrell to continue, glanced somewhat sheepishly at his friend before complying.

"When I rose to the surface," he said, slowly "and saw the ship drawing away in the darkness and heard the cries on board, I swam as strongly as I could towards it. I was weighed down by my clothes, and I had also struck my head going overboard, and I felt that every moment was my last, when I suddenly bumped up against the life-belt. I had just strength to put that on and give one faint hail, and then I think for a time I lost my senses."

Miss Tyrell gave an exclamation of pity; Mr. Fraser made a noise which might have been intended for the same thing.

"The rest of it was like a dream," continued Flower, pressing the girl's hand; "sometimes my eyes were open and sometimes not. I heard the men pulling about and hailing me without being able to reply. By-and-by that ceased, the sky got grey and the water brown; all feeling had gone out of me. The sun rose and burnt in the salt on my face; then as I rose and fell like a cork on the waters, your face seemed to come before me, and I determined to live."

"Beautiful," said Fraser, involuntarily.

"I determined to live," repeated Flower, glancing at him defiantly. "I brushed the wet hair from my eyes, and strove to move my chilled limbs. Then I shouted, and anything more dreary than that shout across the waste of water I cannot imagine, but it did me good to hear my own voice, and I shouted again."

He paused for breath, and Fraser, taking advantage of the pause, got up hurriedly and left the room, muttering something about matches.

"He doesn't like to hear of your sufferings," said Poppy.

"I suppose not," said Flower, whose eloquence had received a chill, "but there is little more to tell. I was picked up by a Russian brig bound for Riga, and lay there some time in a state of fever. When I got better I worked my passage home in a timber boat and landed yesterday."

"What a terrible experience," said Poppy, as Fraser entered the room again.

"Shocking," said the latter.

"And now you've got your own ship again," said the girl, "weren't your crew delighted to see you?"

"I've not seen them yet," said Flower, hesitatingly. "I shipped on another craft this morning before the mast."

"Before the mast," repeated the girl, in amazement.

"Full-rigged ship Golden Cloud bound for New Zealand," said Flower, slowly, watching the effect of his words—"we're to be shipmates."

Poppy Tyrell started up with a faint cry, but Flower drew her gently down again.

"We'll be married in New Zealand," he said, softly, "and then we'll come back and I'll have my own again. Jack told me you were going out on her. Another man has got my craft; he lost the one he had before, and I want to give him a chance for a few months, poor chap, to redeem his character. Besides, it'll be a change. We shall see the world. It'll just be a splendid honeymoon."

"You didn't tell Captain Martin?" enquired the girl, as she drew back in her chair and eyed him perplexedly.

"Not likely," said Flower, with a laugh. "I've shipped in the name of Robert Orth. I bought the man's discharges this morning. He's lying in bed, poor chap, waiting for his last now, and hoping it'll be marked 'v. g.'"

Poppy was silent. For a moment her eyes, dark and inscrutable, met Fraser's; then she looked away, and in a low voice addressed Flower.

"I suppose you know best what is to be done," she said, quietly.

"You leave it to me," said Flower, in satisfied tones. "I'm at the wheel."

There was a long silence. Poppy got up and crossed to the window, and, resting her cheek on her hand, sat watching the restless life of the street. The room darkened slowly with the approach of evening. Flower rose and took the seat opposite, and Fraser, who had been feeling in the way for some time, said that he must go.

"You sail to-morrow evening, Jack?" said Flower, with a careless half-turn towards him.

"About six," was the reply.

"We sail Saturday evening at seven," said Flower, and took the girl's hand in his own. "It will be odd to see you on board, Poppy, and not to be able to speak to you; but we shall be able to look at each other, sha'n't we?"

"Captain Martin is a strict disciplinarian," said Poppy.

"Well he can't prevent us looking at each other," said Flower, "and he can't prevent us marrying when we get to the other end. Good-night, Jack. Next time you see us we'll be an old married couple."

"A quick passage and a safe return," said Fraser. "Good-night."

Poppy Tyrell just gave him her small hand, and that was all. Flower, giving him a hearty grip, accompanied him as far as the door of the room.

He looked back as he gained the pavement, and the last he saw of them they were sitting at the open window. Flower leaned out and waved his hand in farewell, but Poppy made no sign.

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It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.