A Master of Craft

by W. W. Jacobs

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He was awake early in the morning, and, opening the door, stood delightedly breathing the fresh, pine-scented air.

The atmosphere of the Blue Posts was already half forgotten, and he stood looking dreamily forward to the time when he might reasonably return to life and Poppy. He took a few steps into the wood and, after feeling for his pipe before he remembered that Miss Tipping was probably keeping it as a souvenir, sat on a freshly-cut log and fell into a sentimental reverie, until the appearance of a restless old man at the door of the cottage took him back to breakfast.

"I thought you'd run off," said his host, tartly.

"You thought wrong, then," said Flower, sharply, as he took out his purse. "Here are two of the five pounds I promised you; I'll give you the rest when I go."

The old man took the money and closed his small, hard mouth until the lips almost disappeared. "More money than sense," he remarked, cordially, as the skipper replaced his purse.

Flower made no reply. Some slices of fat bacon were sizzling in a pan over the wood-fire, and the pungent smell of the woods, mixed with the sharpness of the morning air, gave him an appetite to which, since his enforced idleness, he had been a stranger. He drew his chair up to the rickety little table with its covering of frayed oil-cloth, and, breaking a couple of eggs over his bacon, set to eagerly.

"Don't get eggs like these in London," he said to the old woman.

The old woman leaned over and, inspecting the shells, paid a tribute to the hens who were responsible for them, and traced back a genealogy which would have baffled the entire College of Heralds—a genealogy hotly contested by the old man, who claimed a bar sinister through three eggs bought at the village shop some generations before.

"You've got a nice little place here," said Flower, by way of changing the conversation, which was well on the way to becoming personal; "but don't you find it rather dull sometimes?"

"Well, I don't know," said the old woman. "I finds plenty to do, and 'e potters about like. 'E don't do much, but it pleases 'im, and it don't hurt me."

The object of these compliments took them as a matter of course, and after hunting up the stump of last night's cigar, and shredding it with his knife, crammed it into a clay pipe and smoked tranquilly. Flower found a solitary cigar, one of the Blue Posts' best, and with a gaze which wandered idly from the chest of drawers on one side of the room to the old china dogs on the little mantel-shelf on the other, smoked in silence.

The old man brought in news at dinner-time. The village was ringing with the news of yesterday's affair, and a rigourous search, fanned into excitement by an offer of two pounds reward, was taking the place of the more prosaic labours of the country side.

"If it wasn't for me," said the old man, in an excess of self-laudation, "you'd be put in the gaol—where you ought to be; but I wouldn't do it if it wasn't for the five pounds. You'd better keep close in the house. There's some more of 'em in the wood looking for you."

Captain Flower took his advice, and for the next two days became a voluntary prisoner. On the third day the old man reported that public excitement about him was dying out, owing partly to the fact that it thought the villain must have made his escape good, and partly to the fact that the landlord of the Wheatsheaf had been sitting at his front door shooting at snakes on the King's Highway invisible to ordinary folk.

The skipper resolved to make a start on the following evening, walking, the first night so as to get out of the dangerous zone, and then training to London. At the prospect his spirits rose, and in a convivial mood he purchased a bottle of red currant wine from the old woman at supper, and handed it round.

He was still cheerful next morning as he arose and began to dress. Then he paused, and in a somewhat anxious fashion patted his trousers pockets. Minute and painful investigation revealed a bunch of keys and a clasp-knife.

He tried his other pockets, and then, sinking in a dazed fashion into a chair, tried to think what had become of his purse and loose change. His watch, a silver one, was under his pillow, where he had placed it the night before, and his ready cash was represented by the shilling which hung upon the chain.

He completed his dressing slowly while walking about the room, looking into all sorts of likely and unlikely hiding-places for his money, and at length gave up the search in disgust, and sat down to wait until such time as his host should appear. It was a complication for which he had not bargained, and unable to endure the suspense any longer, he put his head up the stairway and bawled to the old man to come down.

"What's the matter now?" demanded the old man as he came downstairs, preceded by his wife. "One would think the place belonged to you, making all that noise."

"I've lost my purse," said Flower, regarding him sternly. "My purse has been taken out of one pocket and some silver out of the other while I was asleep."

The old man raised his eyebrows at his wife and scratched his chin roughly.

"I s'pose you've lost my three pounds along with it?" he said, raspily.

"Where's my purse?" demanded the skipper, roughly; "don't play the fool with me. It won't pay."

"I don't know nothing about your purse," said the other, regarding him closely with his little bloodshot eyes; "you're trying to do me out o'my three pounds—me what's took you in and 'id you."

The incensed skipper made no reply, but, passing upstairs, turned the bed-room topsy-turvy in a wild search for his property. It was unsuccessful, and he came down with a look in his face which made his respected host get close to his wife.

"Are you going to give me my money?" demanded he, striding up to him.

"I've not got your money," snarled the other, "I'm an honest man."

He started back in alarm, and his wife gave a faint scream as Flower caught him by the collar, and, holding him against the wall, went through his pockets.

"Don't hurt him," cried the old woman; "he's only a little old man."

"If you were younger and bigger," said the infuriated skipper, as he gave up the fruitless search, "I'd thrash you till you gave it up."

"I'm an honest man," said the other, recovering himself as he saw that his adversary intended no violence; "if you think I've stole your money, you know what you can do."

"What?" demanded Flower.

"Go to the police," said the old man, his little slit of a mouth twisted into a baleful grin; "if you think I've stole your money, go and tell the police."

"Let 'em come and search the house," said the old woman, plucking up spirit. "I've been married forty-two years and 'ad seven children. Go and fetch the police."

Flower stared at them in wrathful concern. Threats were of no use, and violence was out of the question. He went to the door, and leaning against it, stood there deep in thought until, after a time, the old woman, taking courage from his silence, began to prepare breakfast. Then he turned, and drawing his chair up to the table, ate silently.

He preserved this silence all day despite the occasional suggestion of the old man that he should go for the police, and the aggrieved refrain of the old woman as to the length of her married life and the number of her offspring.

He left at night without a word. The old man smiled almost amiably to see him go; and the old woman, who had been in a state of nervous trepidation all day, glanced at her husband with a look in which wifely devotion and admiration were almost equally blended.

Flower passed slowly through the wood, and after pausing to make sure that he was not followed, struck across the fields, and, with his sailor's knowledge of the stars, steered by them in the direction of London.

He walked all that night unmolested, his foot giving him but little trouble, and passed the following day under a haystack, assuaging his hunger with some bread and cheese he had put in his pocket.

Travelling by night and sleeping in secluded spots by day, he reached the city in three days. Considering that he had no money, and was afraid to go into a town to pawn his watch, he did not suffer so much from hunger as might have been expected—something which he vaguely referred to as Providence, but for which the sufferers found other terms, twice leading his faltering footsteps to labourers' dinners in tin cans and red handkerchiefs.

At Stratford he pawned his watch and chain and sat down to a lengthy meal, and then, with nearly eighteen shillings in his pocket, took train to Liverpool Street. The roar of the city greeted his ears like music, and, investing in a pipe and tobacco, he got on a 'bus bound eastward, and securing cheap apartments in the Mile End Road, sat down to consider his plans. The prompt appearance of the Tipping family after his letter to Fraser had given him a wholesome dread of the post, and until the connection between the two was satisfactorily explained he would not risk another, even in his new name of Thompson. Having come to this decision, he had another supper, and then went upstairs to the unwonted luxury of a bed.


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