A Master of Craft

by W. W. Jacobs

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The prime result of Mrs. Banks' nocturnal ramble with Mr. William Green, was a feeling of great bitterness against her old friend, Captain John Barber. Mr. Green, despite her protests, was still a member of the crew of the Foam, and walked about Seabridge in broad daylight, while she crept forth only after sundown, and saw a hidden meaning in every "Fine evening, Mrs. Banks," which met her. She pointed out to Captain Barber, that his refusal to dismiss Mr. Green was a reflection upon her veracity, and there was a strange light in her eyes and a strange hardening of her mouth, as the old man said that to comply with her request would be to reflect upon the polite seaman's veracity.

Her discomfiture was not lessened by the unbecoming behaviour of her daughter, who in some subtle manner, managed to convey that her acceptance of her mother's version of the incident depended upon the way she treated Mr. Frank Gibson. It was a hard matter to a woman of spirit, and a harder thing still, that those of her neighbours who listened to her account of the affair were firmly persuaded that she was setting her cap at Captain Barber.

To clear her character from this imputation, and at the same time to mark her sense of the captain's treatment of her, Mrs. Banks effected a remarkable change of front, and without giving him the slightest warning, set herself to help along his marriage to Mrs. Church.

She bantered him upon the subject when she met him out, and, disregarding his wrathful embarrassment, accused him in a loud voice of wearing his tie in a love-knot. She also called him a turtledove. The conversation ended here, the turtledove going away crimson with indignation and cooing wickedly.

Humbled by the terrors of his position, the proud shipowner turned more than ever to Captain Nibletts for comfort and sympathy, and it is but due to that little man to say that anything he could have done for his benefactor would have given him the greatest delight. He spent much of his spare time in devising means for his rescue, all of which the old man listened to with impatience and rejected with contumely.

"It's no good, Nibletts," he said, as they sat in the subdued light of the cabin one evening.

"Nothing can be done. If anything could be done, I should have thought of it."

"Yes, that's what struck me," said the little skipper, dutifully.

"I've won that woman's 'art," said Captain Barber, miserably; "in 'er anxiety to keep me, the woman's natur' has changed. There's nothing she wouldn't do to make sure of me."

"It's understandable," said Nibletts.

"It's understandable," agreed Captain Barber, "but it's orkard. Instead o' being a mild, amiable sort o' woman, all smiles, the fear o' losing me has changed 'er into a determined, jealous woman. She told me herself it was love of me as 'ad changed her."

"You ain't written to her, I suppose?" asked Nibletts, twisting his features into an expression of great cunning.

Captain Barber shook his head. "If you'd think afore speaking, Nibletts," he said, severely, "you'd know as people don't write to each other when they're in the same house."

The skipper apologised. "What I mean to say is this," he said, softly. "She hasn't got your promise in writing, and she's done all the talking about it. I'm the only one you've spoken to about it, I s'pose?"

Captain Barber nodded.

"Well, forget all about it," said Nibletts, in an excited whisper.

Captain Barber looked at him pityingly.

"What good'll that do?" he asked.

"Forget the understanding," continued Nibletts, in a stage whisper, "forget everything; forget Captain Flower's death, act as you acted just afore he went. People'll soon see as you're strange in your manner, and I'll put the news about as you've been so affected by that affair that your memory's gone."

"I was thinking of doing that the other day myself," said Captain Barber, slowly and untruthfully.

"I thought you was, from something you said," replied Nibletts.

"I think I spoke of it, or I was going to," said Barber.

"You did say something," said Nibletts.

"I wonder what would be the best way to begin," said Barber, regarding him attentively.

Captain Niblett's nerve failed him at the responsibility.

"It's your plan, Captain Barber," he said, impressively, "and nobody can tell a man like you how it should be done. It wants acting, and you've got to have a good memory to remember that you haven't got a memory."

"Say that agin," said Captain Barber, breathing thickly.

Captain Nibletts repeated it, and Captain Barber, after clearing his brain with a glass of spirits, bade him a solemn good-night, and proceeded slowly to his home. The door was opened by Mrs. Church, and a hum of voices from the front room indicated company. Captain Barber, hanging his hat on a peg, entered the room to discover Mrs. Banks and daughter, attended by Mr. Gibson.

"Where's Fred?" he asked, slowly, as he took a seat.

"Who?" said Miss Banks, with a little scream.

"Lawk-a-mussy, bless the man," said her mother. "I never did."

"Not come in yet?" asked Barber, looking round with a frightful stare. "The Foam's up!"

The company exchanged glances of consternation.

"Why, is he alive?" enquired Mrs. Church, sharply.

"Alive!" repeated Captain Barber. "Why shouldn't he be? He was alive yesterday, wasn't he?"

There was a dead silence, and then Captain Barber from beneath his shaggy eyebrows observed with delight that Gibson, tapping his forehead significantly, gave a warning glance at the others, while all four sitting in a row watched anxiously for the first signs of acute mania.

"I expect he's gone round after you, my dear," said the wily Barber to Miss Banks.

In the circumstances this was certainly cruel, and Gibson coughed confusedly.

"I'll go and see," said Miss Banks, hurriedly; "come along, mother."

The two ladies, followed by Mr. Gibson, shook hands and withdrew hurriedly. Captain Barber, wondering how to greet Mrs. Church after he had let them out, fixed his eyes on the carpet and remained silent.

"Aren't you well?" enquired the lady, tenderly.

"Well, ma'am?" repeated Uncle Barber, with severity.

"Ma'am?" said Mrs. Church, in tones of tender reproach; "two hours ago I was Laura. Have you been to the 'Thorn'?"

"What 'Thorn'?" demanded Captain Barber, who had decided to forget as much as possible, as the only safe way.

"The Thorn Inn," said Mrs. Church, impatiently.

"Where is it?" enquired Captain Barber, ingenuously.

Mrs. Church looked at him with deep consideration. "Why, at the end of the cottages, opposite the 'Swan."

"What 'Swan'?" enquired Captain Barber.

"The Swan Inn," said Mrs. Church, restraining her temper, but with difficulty.

"Where is it?" said Uncle Barber, with breezy freshness.

"Opposite the 'Thorn,' at the end of the row," said Mrs. Church, slowly.

"Well, what about it?" enquired Captain Barber.

"Nothing," said Mrs. Church, sharply, and proceeded to set supper.

Captain Barber, hugging himself over his scheme, watched her eagerly, evincing a little bewilderment as she brought on a small, unappetizing rind of cheese, bread, two glasses, and a jug of water. He checked himself just in time from asking for the cold fowl and bacon left from dinner, and, drawing his chair to the table, eyed the contents closely.

"Only bread and cheese?" he said, somewhat peevishly.

"That's all," said Mrs. Church, smiling; "bread and cheese and kisses."

Captain Barber tapped his forehead. "What did we have for dinner?" he asked, suddenly.

"Sausages," replied Mrs. Church, blandly; "we ate them all."

A piece of Captain Barber's cheese went the wrong way, and he poured himself out some water and drank it hurriedly. "Where's the beer?" he demanded.

"You've got the key of the cask," said the housekeeper.

Captain Barber, whose temper was rising, denied it.

"I gave it to you this morning," said Mrs. Church; "you were going to do something to it, don't you know?"

"I don't remember," said Uncle Barber, surlily.

"Whatever has happened to your memory?" said Mrs. Church, sweetly.

"My memory," said the trickster, slowly, passing his hand over his brow; "why, what's the matter with it?"

"It doesn't seem quite so good as it was," said the lady, affectionately. "Never mind, my memory will have to do for both."

There was enough emphasis on this last sentence to send a little chill through the captain's frame.

He said nothing, but keeping his eye on his plate attacked his frugal meal in silence, and soon after-wards went upstairs to bed to think out his position.

If his own memory was defective, Mrs. Church's was certainly redundant. When he came hurrying in to dinner next day she remembered that he had told her he should not be home to that meal. He was ungallant enough to contemplate a raid upon hers; she, with a rare thoughtfulness, had already eaten it. He went to the "Thorn," and had some cold salt beef, and cursed the ingenious Nibletts, now on his way to London, sky-high.

Mrs. Banks came in the next evening with her daughter, and condoled with the housekeeper on the affliction which had already been noised about Seabridge. Mrs. Church, who had accepted her as an ally, but with mental reservations, softly applied a handkerchief to her eyes.

"How are you feeling?" demanded Mrs. Banks, in the voice of one addressing a deaf invalid.

"I'm all right," said Barber, shortly.

"That's his pride," said Mrs. Church, mournfully; "he won't own to it. He can't remember anything. He pretends he doesn't know me."

"Who are you?" asked the sufferer, promptly.

"He'll get the better of it," said Mrs. Banks, kindly, as her quondam foe wiped her eyes again. "If he don't, you'd better marry before October."

To say that Captain Barber pricked up his ears at this, indicates but feebly his interest in the remark. He held his breath and looked wildly round the room as the two ladies, deftly ignoring him, made their arrangements for his future.

"I don't like to seem to hurry it," said the housekeeper.

"No, of course you don't. If he said October, naturally October it ought to be, in the usual way," remarked the other.

"I never said October," interrupted the trembling mariner.

"There's his memory again," said Mrs. Banks, in a low voice.

"Poor dear," sighed the other.

"We'll look after your interests," said Mrs. Banks, with a benevolent smile. "Don't you remember meeting me by the church the other night and telling me that you were going to marry Mrs. Church in October?"

"No," bawled the affrighted man.

"Clean gone," said Mrs. Church, shaking her head; "it's no use."

"Not a bit," said Mrs. Banks.

"October seems rather early," said Mrs. Church, "especially as he is in mourning for his nephew.

"There's no reason for waiting," said Mrs. Banks, decidedly. "I daresay it's his loneliness that makes him want to hurry it. After all, he ought to know what he wants."

"I never said a word about it," interposed Captain Barber, in a loud voice.

"All right," said Mrs. Banks, indulgently. "What are you going to wear, my dear?" she added, turning to the housekeeper.

Mrs. Church seemed undecided, and Captain Barber, wiping the moisture from his brow, listened as one in a dream to a long discussion on the possibilities of her wardrobe. Thrice he interrupted, and thrice the ladies, suspending their conversation for a moment, eyed him with tender pity before resuming it.

"Me and Frank thought of October," said Elizabeth, speaking for the first time. She looked at Captain Barber, and then at her mother. It was the look of one offering to sell a casting vote.

"October's early," said the old lady, bridling.

Mrs. Church looked up at her, and then modestly looked down again. "Why not a double wedding?" she asked, gently.

Captain Barber's voice was drowned in acclamations. Elizabeth kissed Mrs. Church, and then began to discuss her own wardrobe. The owner of the house, the owner of the very chairs on which they were sitting, endeavoured in vain to stop them on a point of order, and discovered to his mortification that a man without a memory is a man without influence. In twenty minutes it was all settled, and even an approximate date fixed. There was a slight movement on the part of Elizabeth to obtain Captain Barber's opinion upon that, but being reminded by her mother that he would forget all about it in half an hour's time, she settled it without him.

"I'm so sorry about your memory, Captain Barber," said Mrs. Banks, as she prepared to depart. "I can understand what a loss it is. My memory's a very good one. I never forget anything."

"You forget yourself, ma'am," returned her victim, with unconscious ambiguity, and, closing the door behind her, returned to the parlour to try and think of some means of escaping from the position to which the ingenuity of Captain Nibletts, aided by that of Mrs. Banks, had brought him.

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